How ESPN Bet is taking on sports betting giants with launch campaign

The new ESPN Bet spots will run across ESPN’s linear and digital programming. (Photo credit: Penn Entertainment, used with permission)
The new ESPN Bet spots will run across ESPN’s linear and digital programming. (Photo credit: Penn Entertainment, used with permission)

EXCLUSIVE: Arts & Letters created the debut work and Publicis handled media buying.

There’s a new player in the world of sportsbooks, as ESPN Bet has arrived with a new launch campaign.

Called What a Play, the campaign centers around two 30-second spots featuring SportsCenter anchors Scott Van Pelt and Elle Duncan using the app to bet on sports teams. 

The first spot features Van Pelt joining two football fans as they take out their trash and ponder why the losing team made a risky play at the last second while they were winning. The second places Duncan in a bar as she runs into a fan secretly betting against the home team.

The spots will run across ESPN’s linear and digital programming. More campaign assets, including digital spots and images, will appear on the sportsbook’s website and out of home.

Arts & Letters handled most elements of the campaign, including strategy, production and creative ideation and execution, while Publicis handled media.

Penn Entertainment, the sportsbook’s operator, declined to disclose the campaign’s budget.

What a Play is designed to acknowledge the diehard fandom that exists around sports betting. More than just a financial transaction, sports bettors are often deeply passionate about the games they bet on, and those bets can deepen their interest in a game even further. 

“The brand first and foremost needs to be about sports fans and how they engage, consume and love sports,” said Aubrey Levy, SVP of content and marketing at Penn. “Betting can add to that and augment that, but ultimately doesn’t stand alone from that.”

Planting that message in the minds of passionate sports fans with financial skin in the game is especially important for Penn as it looks to pit ESPN Bet up against seasoned sportsbooks such as FanDuel and DraftKings — two of the biggest players in an industry that spends big on advertising.

Disqo predicts that total ad spend for the sports betting industry in the U.S. will reach $2 billion in 2023, an 8% increase from the previous year.

As a relatively late player in a category filled with giants, ESPN Bet doesn’t expect to match its marketing investments dollar for dollar. Instead, it’s trying to get a different message out — while other sportsbooks lure users with promises of big wins, ESPN Bet is a place to become more invested in a team or game.

“The way you speak to them and market to them has the opportunity to cut through and land in a way that punches well above your weight class,” Levy said.

And while ESPN bet is a challenger relative to the likes of FanDuel and DraftKings, it isn’t exactly unknown, and is backed by ESPN’s name and legacy. By featuring two popular anchors in its debut spots, the new sportsbook is hoping that its connection to a household media brand will counteract its late entry into the category.

“We wanted to lean in very heavily on the trust that we’ve garnered with sports fans over four decades,” said Seth Ader, VP of marketing at ESPN. “[Van Pelt and Duncan] are the faces of the brand…and they’re just the start. We’ll have others.”

However, some are worried that the crossover between ESPN correspondents and its new gambling outlet won’t stop at sports anchors, and that reporters with insider sports knowledge may impact betting lines

To mitigate these concerns, on November 10, ESPN sent out internal guidelines prohibiting reporters and insiders from betting on sports or events they cover and reporting confidential information that could influence betting markets.

ESPN Bet also didn’t have to start from scratch when it came to finding an agency partner. Its relationship with Arts & Letters began over the summer as a result of the agency’s existing relationship with ESPN as its lead creative partner.

Arts & Letters was assigned to revive the company’s iconic This is SportsCenter campaign last year.

“Over time, we would talk about different things happening in the industry and the category and they started doing work on their own around what an ESPN branded sportsbook might look like and what the value proposition to our audience might be,” Ader said. “It was a natural and sort of obvious choice for us.”

Levy declined to state whether Arts & Letters will work on ESPN Bet in an AOR or project-based capacity, but said that it is working on the sportsbook’s next campaign, which is already in the works.

ESPN Bet was previously called Barstool Sportsbook and was operated by Penn following its acquisition of Barstool Sports in February for a total of $551 million.

But just a few months later in August, Penn sold 100% of the Barstool Sports common stock back to founder David Portnoy for the low price of $1. However, Penn is holding onto the right to receive half of the gross proceeds Portnoy makes on any subsequent sale of Barstool, which he has pledged to “never” do.

After selling Barstool Sports back to Portnoy, Penn Entertainment entered into a licensing deal with ESPN to rebrand its sportsbook into ESPN Bet. Penn agreed to make $1.5 billion in cash payments to ESPN over a ten-year term and grant ESPN approximately $500 million of warrants to purchase 31.8 million Penn common shares in exchange for media, marketing services, brand and other rights provided by ESPN. 

According to Portnoy, much of the troubles Barstool Sportsbook faced at the time was that it was “denied gambling licenses because of [him]” and that regulators and “hit-pieces” that ran in The New York Times and Business Insider were “fucking with the stock prices.” Portnoy was also dinged for leading a misleading no-risk promotion during March Madness.

Now that Penn is free of the Portnoy problem, it may fare a better chance at expanding. 

At the time of its launch, ESPN Bet was available in 17 states.

While Penn’s Levy stated that ESPN’s launch campaign isn’t aimed at expanding the book's presence across more states, he said that it is intended to reach audiences across the country, regardless of what state they're in.

“ESPN clearly provides a natural footprint for us,” he said. “So even though…we’re not active everywhere, I don’t see any reason why this campaign isn’t applicable to any state in the U.S. as and when we continue to expand.”

On December 5, ESPN Bet gained access to North Carolina through golf club Quail Hollow in Charlotte, making it the official sportsbook of the Wells Fargo Championship PGA Tour event scheduled for May.

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