ESPN’s Gambling Pivot Compromises Even More of Its Integrity

ESPN made an agreement with PENN Entertainment to launch ESPN BET

A view of the ESPN logo on a camera at a game.
The ESPN BET sportsbook will launch this fall.
G Fiume/Getty Images

Already a questionable journalistic entity because of its media rights agreements with many of the sports leagues it covers, ESPN’s future as a 100% legitimate and unbiased news source just got a bit murkier. Yesterday it was announced that a $2 billion deal with PENN Entertainment will rebrand Barstool Sportsbook as ESPN BET.

ESPN BET, which will launch this fall in the 16 states where Penn is licensed, has a good shot at breaking up the U.S. sports betting duopoly between FanDuel and DraftKings. But it has an even better chance of bringing the credentials of The Worldwide Leader’s reporters and insiders into question. After all, it’s not that hard to believe that an entity with insider information about sports would use that info to help its partner, a gambling platform, create favorable lines, is it? Wouldn’t ESPN want to use league insiders like Adam Schefter (NFL), Adrian Wojnarowski (NBA) and Jeff Passan (MLB) to help Penn incentivize bettors? It actually seems pretty logical — and others agree.

“The relationship also highlights the various questions and concerns about the intersection of gambling and sport, with ESPN now walking the line between massive partnerships with those that produce the sports on which betting occurs, and a company that hopes to facilitate more and more (and more) betting by the general public,” according to ProFootballTalk.

In Tuesday’s announcement, ESPN vowed to continue its “high standard of journalistic integrity when covering the sports betting space.” Sources also told Front Office Sports that there will be “strict lines of demarcation between journalism and sports betting” and that ESPN insiders will be “kept far away from gambling-focused programs like Daily Wager.” It’s possible that ESPN really will be able to separate journalistic integrity and sports betting, but all it will take is one incident, or even the implication of one, to turn this deal into a $2 billion blunder by the Worldwide Leader.

A corollary of the ESPN BET announcement is that Penn has sold “100%” of Barstool Sports back to its founder Dave Portnoy, per the New York Post. Portnoy sold a majority of Barstool to The Chernin Group in 2016 before Penn completed its acquisition of Barstool earlier this year for $551 million.

To celebrate the buyback, Portnoy got himself something nice.

“We underestimated just how tough it is for myself and Barstool to operate in a regulatory world where gambling regulators, the New York Times, Business Insider hit pieces fucking with the stock price. Every time we did something it was one step forward, two steps back,” Portnoy said in a video about the sale. “We got denied licenses because of me. You name it. So the regulated industry probably not the best place for Barstool Sports and the content we make. More importantly, for us, for Barstool, for the first time in forever, we don’t have to watch what we say, how we talk, what we do. It’s back to the pirate ship. By the way, I will never sell Barstool Sports [again], ever. I’ll hold it till I die.”

We’ll see.

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