Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek has revealed the storied brand is now poised “to get aggressive” with a proposed expansion into sports gaming — most likely through its ESPN and or ABC broadcasting vehicles.
ESPN—founded as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network–and ABC already dominate live sports and sports-related broadcasting in the United States.
Now Disney is looking to partner with a top sports betting company, most likely through a joint-licencing deal, Chapek indicated in a high-level call with investors at the Goldman Sachs 2021 Communacopia Conference in late September.
Moving into sports betting–through a surrogate–would be a logical next step for Disney and could be seamless, believe industry watchers.
Between them, for example, the two Disney-owned channels hold US broadcast rights to the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Wimbledon tennis championship, the PGA golf tour and LaLiga Spanish football — to mention their most prominent deals.
Ace in the Hole
Mindful of their iconic image of personifying wholesome family fun, it’s unlikely that Mickey Mouse or the Little Mermaid will be hitting the slots or poker table anytime soon, but Chapek has, nevertheless, signalled a new approach to gaming.
He told investors: “Let’s just say that our fans are really interested in sports betting. Let’s say that our partners, with the leagues, are interested in sports betting. So we’re [also] interested in sports betting.”
Disney already knows all about turning a tidy profit with “dirty, sexy” projects that don’t taint its founding ethos.
In 1984, for example, the company set up Touchstone Films, later Touchstone Pictures, to produce edgier PG-13 and R-Rated movies, such as “Down and Out in Beverley Hills” — a 1986 vehicle for the then very hot—and profane—Nick Nolte.
Observers say Disney is looking to invest around US$3 billion (£2.2bn/€2.59bn) in a multi-year venture with the right partner.
“Strategically, what sports betting gives us is the ability to appeal to a much younger sports fan viewer, who can be very strong in their affinity for those sports,” said Chapek.
Yet Disney—whisper it—already own a stake in leading US fantasy sports site and sportsbook Draft Kings, through their US$71 billion acquisition (£52.11bn/€61.23bn) of 21st Century Fox in May, 2019.
When asked about this new connection with the “wicked world” of gambling, Disney’s then-CEO Bob Iger said, somewhat bashfully: “We’ll provide programming that will, I guess, be designed to enlighten people who are betting on sports.
“That’s as far as we would go. We just don’t intend to go into the gambling business.”
But Chapek, who succeeded Iger last year, is determined to keep Disney abreast of all the latest moves in the entertainment business, which today means streaming and all things online.
Indicatively, in 2016, when running Disney’s theme parks, Chapek allowed alcohol in some parks for the first time.
In August, the highly reputable Wall Street Journal reported that Disney was in talks to license its ESPN brand to casino operator Caesars Entertainment.
“They’re very deliberately and carefully realizing that their brand is maturing and people have matured with it,” said one entertainment and media insider, Tom Nunan, a former president of NBC Studios and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and TV.
Bambi’s Best Friend
With the annual global sports betting market worth an estimated US$70 billion (£51.38bn/€60.37bn), and growing by around 10 per cent a year, an ESPN-licensed sportsbook could be a big revenue driver for Disney.
Added Nunan: “[In ESPN] they have one of the most trusted brands in sports, if not the most trusted brand. [It’s] the gold standard for sports entertainment.”
DraftKings, meanwhile, as previously reported extensively in iGaming Future, has just made a US$20 billion offer (£14.68bn/€17.25bn) to buy the UK’s FTSE100 Entain Omni-channel betting group.
Tarnished image or shining icon, like it or not, Disney is already deeply embedded in sports gaming and, by extension, online gambling.
Now the company beloved by all just needs to embrace, extoll and exploit the virtues of good clean responsible gambling.
Thumper, Bambi’s best friend, would approve. If Disney makes the noise the iGaming scene could be transformed.
Make no mistake this is big, very big, news for the industry.