How the Supreme Court’s Decision on Sports Betting May Influence ESPN’s Programming

Network is 'actively monitoring' the gambling space

"It's obviously very early, but I can tell you that we are actively monitoring and we're looking at the space," said ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro at ESPN's upfront presentation today. Steve Fenn / ESPN Images
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After his network’s upfront presentation today, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro told reporters that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling—which strikes down a 1992 federal law prohibiting betting on college and professional sports—presents an interesting programming opportunity for “the worldwide leader in sports.”

“It’s obviously very early, but I can tell you that we are actively monitoring and we’re looking at the space,” said Pitaro, adding that the space is “very interesting to us, especially from a programming perspective.”

Developing programming themed around sports betting would make sense, considering the engagement gambling can bring to the live sports viewing experience. If Pitaro and ESPN’s other powers-that-be went that route, the content would likely end up on ESPN’s new direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service, ESPN+. The product launched last month and was a major part of the network’s pitch to advertisers today at New York’s Minskoff, the home of The Lion King (or as longtime ESPN host Kenny Mayne called it, “the theater where a lion dies”).

Pitaro, participating in his first upfront event as ESPN president, said he wasn’t able to talk revenue numbers for ESPN+ (which costs $4.99 per month and $49.99 per year)—but he did say engagement, reach and the platform’s technology are strong.

"Whether you’re a player, a writer or producer, what’s at the core of Detail is [that] determination wins games, but detail wins championships."
Kobe Bryant, about new show Detail

The network is bullish on its new streaming service, which will offer live sports programming, as well as original series. One ESPN+ original is named Detail, a basketball analysis show hosted and executive produced by Kobe Bryant. The five-time NBA champion and Academy Award-winner took the stage to speak about his new streaming series, where he provides his unique insights and game observations about an ESPN-covered game played the day before. Bryant has a particular audience in mind for his show: the “kid out there who wants to be the best basketball player in the world.”

“Whether you’re a player, a writer or producer, what’s at the core of Detail is [that] determination wins games, but detail wins championships,” Bryant continued.

Mayne provided comedy throughout the presentation, but ESPN Sunday Night Baseball trio Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez provided levity as well. Vasgerian joked directly to the advertising community about in-game branding opportunities, like “Strikeout: Brought to you by,” or “Cleanup Hitter: Brought to you by Clorox” and “Relief Pitcher: Brought to you by Xanax.”

Rodriguez also brought up his new four-part series for ESPN and ESPN Deportes called Pivot. “The message for this show is that people make mistakes, and I’ve made plenty of those. But you don’t have to be defined by those mistakes, because how you come back matters too,” said Rodriguez. “I talk to athletes who have overcome similar challenges [about] how they have been able to navigate through tough times.”

One of the most notable parts of the presentation included the first public appearance of the new ESPN Monday Night Football team: play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore, analyst Booger McFarland, former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten and veteran Monday Night Football reporter Lisa Salters. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones appeared on stage to introduce Witten, who is going directly from the football field into the broadcast booth. “In my 30 years involved in the NFL, Jason Witten is in my top five,” Jones said. “No question.”

“In my 30 years involved in the NFL, Jason Witten is in my top five. No question."
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

Longtime SportsCenter anchor and golf analyst Scott Van Pelt appeared on stage to talk about the upcoming daily morning SportsCenter, which will soon be found on the new ESPN App. As the network stated at its NewFront presentation earlier this month, the morning SportsCenter is meant as a supplement, not a competitor, to the network’s new morning show Get Up!.

Speaking of Get Up!, reporters predictably asked Pitaro about the network’s morning show, which struggled out of the gate (though Pitaro noted ratings growth after its rough start). Co-hosts Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose were not present at the upfront.

Pitaro wanted to assure reporters that the network is still fully committed to the program.

“There’s always a response when there’s a change to the system, and Get Up! is different from what we have done before,” said Pitaro. “We have made some changes, we’re monitoring it daily and we’re working closely with the team to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.”

ESPN global head of sales and marketing Ed Erhardt wrapped this year’s ESPN upfront by touting ESPN’s year-over-year streaming growth (12 percent of ESPN’s impressions were from streaming and out-of-home, said Erhardt ), as well as ratings growth for NBA on ESPN/ABC. He also thanked top brand partners Northwestern Mutual and clothing retailer DXL.

“Let’s create what’s next together,” said Erhardt. “In a landscape where results matter now more than ever, there is simply is no room for second place, and with ESPN, you can be first.”

@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.