ESPN Enters Sports Betting Business

By Luke Owen | UConn Journalism
Decem­ber 8, 2023

STORRS — Bran­don Sund­blade is a dai­ly sports bet­tor who relies on sports jour­nal­ists to pro­vide accu­rate and time­ly updates so that he can place informed bets.

I fol­low every major NFL and NBA jour­nal­ist on Twit­ter. I have their post noti­fi­ca­tions on, too,” Sund­blade admit­ted. “If a play­er is a game-time deci­sion, I am con­stant­ly check­ing [Adam] Schefter’s feed to make sure I know what’s going on.”

Sund­blade is not alone. These jour­nal­ists have mas­sive fol­low­ings, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter boast­ing 10.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers on X and his col­league Adri­an Woj­narows­ki close­ly behind at 6.2 mil­lion. Despite long track records of accu­ra­cy, these break­ing news sports jour­nal­ists have come to the fore­front of poten­tial scruti­ny due to ESPN’s recent endeav­or. ESPN has entered the online sports wager­ing scene with their $2 bil­lion deal to rebrand what was for­mer­ly Barstool Sports­book into ESPN Bet, accord­ing to ESPN Press Room. ESPN has made this move in light of the mas­sive growth sports bet­ting has seen in recent years.

After the Supreme Court decid­ed to strike down the fed­er­al ban on sports bet­ting in the Unit­ed States, sports gam­bling has seen expo­nen­tial growth nation­wide each year. In 2019, sports bet­ting gen­er­at­ed a mere $910 mil­lion to the $7.56 bil­lion gen­er­at­ed in 2022, accord­ing to Statista.

The rev­enue num­bers have been jaw-drop­ping at times,” said Mike Mazzeo, a reporter for Legal Sports Report who cov­ers the sports bet­ting world.

In Octo­ber, across the U.S., over $10 bil­lion worth of total bets was spent at the sports­books, with the books bring­ing in just over $964 mil­lion in total rev­enue, accord­ing to data from Legal Sports Report. These stag­ger­ing num­bers are why ESPN is try­ing to get involved.

How­ev­er, Mazzeo said that DraftK­ings and Fan­du­el are cur­rent­ly the dom­i­nant online sports bet­ting apps, with “a lot of oper­a­tors going in and out.” “It’s going to be inter­est­ing whether any­body can get into that mix and get some con­sis­tent mar­ket share,” said Mazzeo. That is where ESPN Bet fits in. “They’ve had lots of down­loads. Will that lead to rev­enue, han­dle, and [mar­ket] share for them? We’ll see,” said Mazzeo.

From the busi­ness side, this pur­chase appears poten­tial­ly lucra­tive for ESPN. How­ev­er, con­sid­er­ing jour­nal­ists’ influ­ence on bet­ting, the ques­tion is raised: does this cross a line in jour­nal­ism? ESPN reporters have shown their influ­ence on sports­books before. A year ago, ESPN NBA Insid­er Adri­an Woj­narows­ki released tweets just hours before the 2022 NBA Draft detail­ing which play­ers teams are like­ly to select. As a result of his report­ing, the odds on sports­books shift­ed dras­ti­cal­ly, accord­ing to a USA Today article.

At the time, this was con­sid­ered harm­less, but now ESPN has a stake in a sports­book under its name, and the optics of report­ing or with­hold­ing infor­ma­tion have changed. ESPN said they will main­tain a “high stan­dard of jour­nal­is­tic integri­ty when cov­er­ing the sports bet­ting space,” accord­ing to ESPN Press Room. Prince J. Grimes, a cur­rent sports jour­nal­ist for USA Today who worked at ESPN in 2018 as an edi­tor, said he saw a “shift hap­pen in real-time” as sites like ESPN began cov­er­ing bet­ting, which is now a main­stay. Grimes believes that ESPN’s pur­chase will not have much of an effect on the way their jour­nal­ists cov­er sports.

They have a respon­si­bil­i­ty as jour­nal­ists any­way, to report the news accu­rate­ly and uphold integri­ty,” but Grimes admit­ted, “there is a thin line that has to be towed.” Grimes also said that the influ­ence and pow­er of some jour­nal­ists could present future road bumps and oppor­tu­ni­ties for scruti­ny. “The line moves when [Woj­narows­ki] puts out his reports,” said Grimes.

I think it’s going to be a learn­ing curve for every­body. The media and the con­sumers,” said Grimes. “Fans, con­sumers, and peo­ple who do bet. They are going to have to smarten up.” As for the guide­lines ESPN has put in place, “Even if it’s just for show. You have to at least give the pub­lic a lit­tle bit of con­fi­dence you are try­ing to uphold some type of integri­ty,” Grimes said.

Anoth­er rea­son peo­ple are con­cerned is because sports report­ing has become a race, mak­ing inac­cu­rate report­ing more fre­quent. Mul­ti­ple reporters from dif­fer­ent net­works are con­stant­ly com­pet­ing to see who can tweet out the scoop first. Despite this race between jour­nal­ists, Steve Buck­heit, a sports jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, feels it is “absolute­ly, pos­i­tive­ly, more impor­tant to get things right than first.”

Being accu­rate and first has become increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult as the news cycle has changed from news­pa­pers to online. “Before, you only had one chance per day to tell peo­ple the break­ing news. But now, it’s 24 hours a day,” said Buckheit.

This new age of break­ing news direct­ly influ­ences the sports bet­ting world. “When you are cov­er­ing a live game, and you are aware that your report­ing could affect a prop bet, it will affect jour­nal­ism. We just don’t know how yet,” said Buck­heit. “If some­one gets a scoop on an in-game injury, or if some­one gets a scoop on some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing that will affect the odds of the game. That news sud­den­ly becomes big busi­ness,” said Buck­heit. As for ESPN and its asso­ci­a­tion with bet­ting, Buck­heit feels the mar­riage of the two is unavoid­able. “Unequiv­o­cal­ly ESPN is asso­ci­at­ed with bet­ting, with the launch of ESPN Bet,” accord­ing to Buckheit.

Despite some eth­i­cal con­cerns though, Buck­heit does not view this asso­ci­a­tion as a hin­drance to jour­nal­ism. “You could say it’s a con­flict of inter­est. But you could also call it poor jour­nal­ism if you don’t cov­er the bet­ting spreads,” said Buck­heit. Ulti­mate­ly, “if you cov­er the [sports] indus­try, you can’t not cov­er bet­ting. They go hand in hand. It’s part of jour­nal­ism,” accord­ing to Buckheit.

The col­li­sion of sports jour­nal­ism and sports bet­ting world and its last­ing effects are still yet to be seen. “Infor­ma­tion is so crit­i­cal in terms of mak­ing a good bet,” said Mazzeo. “It’s on those jour­nal­ists to ensure they are not doing any­thing unto­ward.” Ulti­mate­ly, these reporters, know­ing­ly or not, have an influ­ence on how peo­ple spend mon­ey. This is evi­denced by their abil­i­ty to sway bet­ting odds and their impor­tance to bet­tors like Sund­blade, who admits, “No doubt their report­ing influ­ences how I bet.”

TOP PHOTO: ESPN logo. Asso­ci­at­ed Press/File Photo