(Bloomberg) -- ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said Wednesday that he doesn’t anticipate an imminent sports-betting deal, clouding expectations for timing of a potential tie-up with DraftKings Inc.
Pitaro said the network is exploring a deeper push into sports betting and has had talks with “all the usual suspects.” Bloomberg News reported last month that ESPN was nearing a large new partnership with DraftKings. However, the recent return of Bob Iger at the helm of parent company Walt Disney Co. has left many strategic priorities in flux.
“We’re not going to take people’s money; we’re not going to set lines and spreads and odds,” Pitaro said at a conference hosted by Sports Business Journal. “But the idea of leaning in a bit more here and creating a more seamless experience is definitely on the table.”
Disney has long sought to protect its family-friendly image, and for many years, betting was considered taboo. After Bob Chapek took over as chief executive officer in 2020, Disney began searching for a major sports betting partner for ESPN, seeking as much as $3 billion for an extended deal. Chapek’s firing and Iger’s surprise return may change those plans.
“Bob’s ultimately going to have to dig in with me,” Pitaro said. “We’re going to have to sit down and I’m going to have to walk him through this.” He added: “I do not anticipate any deals imminent.”
In 2019, then-CEO Iger told investors that he didn’t see Disney getting into the business of gambling or “facilitating gambling in any way.” ESPN’s role, he said, was providing information. The network has betting-related shows like Daily Wager and marketing deals with DraftKings and Caesars Entertainment Inc., but it has steered clear of taking actual bets.
But a lot has changed since the last time Iger was in charge. More than half of states have legalized sports betting, and media companies and leagues that may have once worried about the moral questions with gambling are now rushing to cash in on the frenzy.
A deal with a sports-betting company could also be attractive to Iger given the financial pressures that Disney is facing. Such an agreement could mean a sports-betting company pays for the rights to use the ESPN brand and agrees to buy a certain amount of ads, providing a boost at a time when other advertisers are pulling back.
“We believe that there is upside for the ESPN business and we believe there is upside for the ESPN brand,” Pitaro said. At the same time, “we have to consider things from a Disney perspective as well.”
Separately, Pitaro said ESPN “very much” wants to renew its TV deal with the NBA but will want more flexibility to stream basketball games. He expects any new deal will include a “large direct-to-consumer or digital component.”
(Updates with Pitaro comments beginning in third paragraph.)
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