ESPN is in the same boat as everyone else in the sports industry as it tries to interpret the implications of Monday’s Supreme Court ruling opening the door for states to legalize betting on games.
But one thing was evident on Tuesday when executives spoke after the annual “upfront” presentation to advertisers in Manhattan: Look for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports to carve out its piece of that pie.
That likely will include added revenue from advertising and sponsorships, but it also will play into editorial strategy — as it will for most media outlets.
“The space is interesting to us, especially from a programming perspective,” ESPN’s recently installed president, Jimmy Pitaro, said, adding the network already has dipped its toe into those waters with a podcast centered on sports betting and other elements that have been “gradually weaved into our programming.”
That only will grow. “I think going forward obviously we’re going to look at where we can find more opportunities,” said Connor Schell, executive vice president of content.
Burke Magnus, executive VP of programming, said one trick will be navigating the different approaches from various sports entities, from the liberal attitude of the NBA to the NCAA’s more cautious approach given “the mission they serve,” as Magnus put it.
“It’s so early now to predict where it’s going to land,” Magnus said, “but from our perspective we think obviously there’s an opportunity there to provide information to people who might be participating. So there are benefits, no doubt.”
Also at the upfront: Pitaro insisted that ESPN’s relationship with the NFL is “not strained” after what widely was reported to be a rough patch under his predecessor, John Skipper. He defended the content of the new “Sunday Night Baseball” booth and the morning show “Get Up!” despite ratings sluggishness for both.
Pitaro said ESPN is “pleased” with the launch of its new subscription-based digital service, ESPN+, but would not reveal how many people have signed up for it. He said ESPN’s overarching goal is to grow its audience beyond core, avid fans, and also to reach younger viewers. One example of that is its recent deal with UFC.
ESPN used the presentation itself to announce several programming items, notably a 10-part documentary series in partnership with Netflix on Michael Jordan and his 1990s Bulls teams called “The Last Dance” that will premiere in 2019.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was a surprise on-stage guest as new “Monday Night Football” analyst and former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was introduced.