May 21, 2019

Media companies' newest wager: Their commitment to sports betting

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The legalization of sports betting has opened up new business opportunities for some of America's biggest media companies, forcing them to decide just how far they want to wade into the world of sports books.

Why it matters: Striking the right balance between leaning into betting — and not alienating casual fans or compromising journalistic principles — will force the establishment of new media boundaries.

Driving the news: Fox announced the most aggressive push into domestic sports betting this month with the introduction of "Fox Bet," an online betting app.

  • Fox Corp. is buying 5% of Canadian gaming and online gambling company Stars Group Inc. for $236 million. In doing so, it will be starting its own sports wagering platform, a major step for a U.S. sports broadcaster.
  • Fox is the second media company to get directly involved with betting. In December, mobile sports app theScore announced that it planned to launch its own mobile sports book, beginning in New Jersey.

Other TV networks with sports broadcast rights are taking a more cautious approach, partnering with casinos on the ground in Vegas for content, but not establishing their own books.

  • ESPN said last week that it's partnering with Caesars Entertainment to develop TV programming for sports-betting fans. President Jimmy Pitaro told the Wall Street Journal Monday, "We are not going to be taking people’s money. Our mission is to serve the sports fan and when we do that it’s to do that it's through news and information."
  • Turner Sports and Bleacher Report announced a similar deal in February, building a branded Bleacher Report studio inside the Caesars Palace Sports Book in Las Vegas. Caesars agreed to sponsor select Turner sports on Turner's linear TV networks, in addition to opportunities for co-produced programming and events.

Yes, but: "In some ways, these partnerships feel old school," says Patrick Keane, CEO of The Action Network, a subscription sports betting media company.

  • "They are great opportunities for revenue and for potential fans in Vegas, but future consumers overwhelmingly say when they bet that they want to do it with a mobile device versus in-venue."
  • According to a new Action Network/Global Web Index survey, 79% of sports fans would consider placing a bet via an app or website, compared to 51% in a betting shop or casino.

Worth noting: Some networks are opting to keep betting away from traditional TV channels altogether. Both CBS and NBC are mostly opting to place their betting content on streaming services, instead of their main television products.

Our thought bubble: Most critics don't see content creation around sports betting as a breach of journalistic integrity, and the demand for betting content across all networks suggest that fans don't see it that way either.

  • And it's doubtful that fans will feel differently about a network's sports media coverage once it gets involved in betting directly.
  • The idea of sports companies getting into books is new in the U.S., but not in Europe, where Sky Bet, a U.K.-based sports betting company owned by Stars Group, has operated its own sports book for years.
  • "In the U.K. it's pretty well regulated," DAZN North America EVP Joe Markowski told me last week at the Pay-TV show in Denver. "If regulated properly, it could be a force for good in America."

What's next? Other companies see gambling as a way to bolster revenues. Sinclair Broadcast Group, for example, had betting in mind when it recently announced a deal to acquire more than 20 regional sports networks from Disney for $10 billion.

Go deeper: Media companies could score on sports betting decision

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