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Questions Remain, But ESPN BET Still on for Nov. 14 Massachusetts Launch

Robert Linnehan

by Robert Linnehan in Sports Betting News

Updated Nov 14, 2023 · 1:10 PM PST

Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard on the court in NBA preseason
Oct 8, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard (11) reacts to game play against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
  • The Massachusetts Gaming Commission met with PENN Entertainment reps to discuss concerns before ESPN BET’s Nov. 14 launch
  • Commissioners still have concerns about ESPN on-air personalities discussing sports bets
  • ESPN will not promote the sports betting app during live college shows

Questions still remain about how ESPN will handle sports betting discussions on air, but ESPN BET will still likely launch in Massachusetts on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) this morning met with PENN Entertainment representatives to discuss concerns ahead of ESPN BET’s launch next week. The commissioners were looking for answers as to how ESPN would dictate sports betting discussions during on-air content and live events at college campuses.

The MGC will review and potentially vote on final approval of ESPN BET’s house rules in a meeting tomorrow.

Guidelines in Place for Live College Shows

Chris Rogers, PENN Entertainment’s Chief Strategy Officer, opened the meeting with ESPN’s plan to comply with state regulations regarding promotions of ESPN BET during live colleges shows on campus and off.

During PENN Entertainment’s previous partnership with Barstool Sports, the MGC had concerns over an incident with the Barstool College Football Show at the University of Toledo’s campus. During the show, Barstool advertised its Barstool Sportsbook by promoting pre-registration for the sportsbook, including bonus cash and “mycash” rewards for PENN Entertainment casinos. It also  targeted individuals under the age of 21 in the same way during the show.

Rogers noted that ESPN is taking steps to ensure this does not happen with any network shows on a college campus, or at a stadium or arena in which a college audience is expected.

ESPN programming on college campuses, or in a situation where a large college audience is expected, will be prohibited from promoting, soliciting, or mentioning ESPN BET to the in-person audience. ESPN BET advertisements may air during these shows, but cannot be displayed to the audience.

Rogers assured the MGC that no ESPN BET signage will be displayed during a live college sports show, no sign-ups for ESPN BET will be promoted, and no promotion of the sports betting operator will take place on a college campus.

ESPN BET promos will also be highly regulated in the commonwealth.

Concerns Remain About On-Air Content

Questions still remain about what guidelines will be in place for ESPN on-air talent to discuss sports bets and picks. In order to protect ESPN’s journalist integrity, Rogers said ESPN talent and insiders will be kept separate from anyone on the PENN trading desk.

“There will be no connection between ESPN insiders, reporters, or the news desk with anyone who handles risk and trading for PENN,” he said.

Despite his assurances, the commissioners still had questions about guidelines involving content and sports betting.

Commissioner Jordan Maynard raised concerns about integration between on-air personalities and ESPN BET. How will someone like Pat McAfee, he said, be able to discuss sports betting or picks on his show and not have that integrated into ESPN BET?

“Where do those lines get drawn? When Pat makes a prediction, when they start going through the lines on the show, does your app then have a ‘Pat McAfee parlay?’ Is he being an analyst? Is he marketing? What is he doing in that show? Which bucket do we put that into? How do we protect consumers, because that’s our job, and our number one priority,” Maynard said.

Rogers said PENN and ESPN will be providing guidelines for how on-air content and personalities will discuss sports betting, but does not believe doing so is a requirement under the state regulations. The company will do so as a “voluntary policy,” he said, but shouldn’t be held to a different standard than other companies that have sports betting branding partnerships.

Transparency with state regulators is important, he said, but PENN Entertainment should not be held to a different standard for an industry-wide issue.

Commissioner Eileen O’Brien disagreed with Rogers’ assertion that the guideline document is a voluntary action on their part. The commissioner argued that it is a necessary step for ESPN BET to receive final approval from the MGC.

“You are unique in that you’ve gone outside of your company’s brand to a preexisting brand. In this context, you have created a heightened risk of the scenarios we just talked about. You’re not being treated different than a similarly situated licensee, I think you are a licensee who is situationally different because of the branding you chose to do,” O’Brien said.

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