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ESPN and Fox Ante Up for Sports-Betting Jackpot

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06/10/2019 | 07:15am EDT

By Benjamin Mullin

ESPN is covering the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors from every conceivable angle.

In addition to the heroics of Warriors superstar Stephen Curry and the antics of rapper and Raptors superfan Drake, the network is devoting a significant amount of airtime to bettors with such details as points individual players scored and whether the favored team won by enough to beat the spread.

This spring the Walt Disney Co. unit started airing "Daily Wager," a one-hour show aimed at sports gamblers, on its ESPNews channel. "We approach this like 'SportsCenter' with betting," host Doug Kezirian said.

Sports gambling is only legal in a handful of states yet many of the major sports broadcasters are grabbing a piece of the action.

Turner Sports, part of AT&T Inc.'s WarnerMedia, earlier this year struck a partnership with Caesars Entertainment Corp. to produce sports-betting content, including video segments shot from a newly built studio inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. For its part, Fox Corp. debuted a show for sports bettors last year and is working on launching its own betting app.

The broadcasters are trying to capitalize on a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that elements of a law banning sports betting in most states were unconstitutional. Sports gambling is now active to varying degrees in eight states, and bills to legalize the practice have been passed in several others.

If sports betting was legal nationally, it would generate more than $17 billion annually, with media companies making between $3 billion and $5 billion in additional revenue, according to Chris Grove, the managing director for sports and emerging verticals at research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.

Besides selling ads in programming, media companies see promise in cutting brand-licensing deals with casinos and generating revenue by referring potential bettors to sports books. Some of the ads on ESPN's "Daily Wager" are bought by Caesars, which is often mentioned on the air as the show's official oddsmaker.

Taking bets and paying wagers are off the table for ESPN, according to Justin Connolly, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing at Disney and ESPN Media Networks.

"We are not interested in doing something in exchange for short-term revenue opportunities if it's not right for the brand or the sports fan, " Mr. Connolly said.

ESPN parent Disney acquired a small stake in fantasy-sports operator DraftKings through its purchase of 21st Century Fox's major entertainment assets, though a person familiar with the matter said ESPN isn't involved with DraftKings' daily operations.

DraftKings and FanDuel, both of which started out as fantasy-sports platforms, have emerged as two of the most popular mobile sports-betting services in the U.S. Both use geofencing, meaning they only accept bets where online sports-betting is legal.

Fox Corp. is looking to compete with apps including FanDuel and DraftKings directly by launching Fox Bet, which is expected to go live this fall and will be powered by Stars Group, an online sports-betting company in which Fox agreed to buy a 4.99% stake for $236 million last month. Fox's FS1 channel caters to sports bettors with "Lock It In," a daily, hourlong show.

Executives at Fox believe that helping sports fans place wagers will give the company access to a valuable revenue stream, according to a person familiar with the matter. Fox avoided exceeding 5% ownership of Stars Group, which could have required the company to acquire gambling licenses in some states. Fox has common ownership with News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal.

At WarnerMedia, the sports site Bleacher Report has become the AT&T unit's primary outlet for sports-betting information. WarnerMedia's Turner Sports has included segments from the Bleacher Report studio in its postgame coverage on "Inside the NBA."

Caesars is buying ads from Bleacher Report and ESPN and is paying to sponsor content across ESPN, Bleacher Report and programming on Turner networks including TNT. The casino operator is using the deals with ESPN and Turner to increase revenue, reinforce the company's brand and create an additional attraction for guests, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Sinclair Broadcast Group has said it is positioned to capitalize on legalized sports betting after the company agreed to acquire regional sports networks from Fox for $10.6 billion.

Media companies were producing content aimed at sports bettors well before the Supreme Court's decision, including CBSSports.com and Yahoo, which is owned by Verizon Communications Inc. But there is new momentum.

"The floodgates are starting to open, not only for more gambling-focused content, but entirely new data products that appeal to people trying to gain an edge," said Jim Lanzone, chief executive officer of CBS Interactive.

Mr. Grove of Eilers & Krejcik Gaming said growth of the sports-betting business is being hindered by states' piecemeal and often inconsistent legislation, which is difficult for national players to navigate.

"It's one of the hardest advertising markets I've seen in the 20 years I've been in the business," said Patrick Keane, CEO of sports-betting analytics provider Action Network.

For the NBA Finals, Mr. Kezirian of "Daily Wager" has kept things light, comparing studio analysts to determine whose betting record is best, occasionally ribbing his guests for blowing predictions and critiquing their sense of style.

There is news, too. Halfway through a show last week, Mr. Kezirian reported that Illinois passed a bill that would regulate sports betting.

"I guess the times are changing, my friend," he said.

Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
AT&T -0.56% 33.4 Delayed Quote.18.11%
CAESARS ENTERTAINMENT CORP -0.70% 11.84 Delayed Quote.75.55%
WALT DISNEY COMPANY (THE) -1.21% 142.51 Delayed Quote.31.60%
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Financials (USD)
Sales 2019 72 846 M
EBIT 2019 15 842 M
Net income 2019 11 493 M
Debt 2019 33 136 M
Yield 2019 1,23%
P/E ratio 2019 20,8x
P/E ratio 2020 24,9x
EV / Sales2019 4,02x
EV / Sales2020 3,40x
Capitalization 260 B
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