Brand Strategy

Inside ESPN’s playbook for marketing its sportsbook

ESPN Bet is one of the newest entrants to the increasingly crowded sports-betting space, but there’s still room in the market, one ESPN marketer said.
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· 4 min read

ESPN’s bet on sports betting only started recently.

Major sportsbooks including FanDuel, DraftKings, Caesars, MGM, and Wynn were already spending millions on social and TV advertising as far back as 2022, and since then, FanDuel and other sports-betting brands have made their Super Bowl ad debuts.

So ESPN Bet, the sportsbook created by ESPN and Penn Entertainment that went live this past November, has had some catching up to do in the marketing department.

“Most people…certainly have their preferred [sports betting] platform, but we felt like we had an opportunity to come in and hopefully provide a better product and better experience to fans,” Alex Healy-Lucciola, senior director of marketing for fantasy and sports betting at ESPN, told Marketing Brew.

While the ESPN brand name may hold weight among sports and sports-betting fans, Healy-Lucciola and his team aren’t relying on that alone to pull in users in an increasingly crowded market. Instead, their play also centers around a brand platform and campaign that’s based on “the language of sports fans” and is meant to “democratize sports betting,” he said.

Get the ball rolling

For its inaugural campaign, ESPN tapped Arts & Letters Creative Co., an independent agency that has worked with ESPN for several years across properties including college football, espnW, and SportsCenter, according to Molly Jamison, an ECD at the agency.

Together, the marketing team came up with the “What a Play” campaign, which rolled out in November with ads featuring on-air talent like Scott Van Pelt and Elle Duncan. The latest iteration, called “Pool Hall” and starring First Take host Stephen A. Smith, started running on ESPN platforms and paid channels in mid-May and is continuing through the NBA Finals. Smith is also set to lead the next ad in the campaign later this summer.

The spots are meant to capture the overall sports fan experience, Healy-Lucciola said, but strive to keep from getting too in the weeds about sports betting so the creative can resonate with a fairly broad audience, Jamison added. The newest iteration of the campaign, for instance, shows Smith playing pool in a bar with a group of friends while watching an unnamed game on TV and discussing it using general sportsisms (“Plenty of game left,” one of them says).

“You turn on a broadcast, you hear, ‘What a play,’” Healy-Lucciola said. “You’re texting your friend as you sit on your couch, when something amazing happens, you say, ‘What a play.’ We felt that this was a tagline and a platform that really had threads through everything we wanted to accomplish and build as a brand.”

Full-court press

The cast and the content alike are meant to be representative of “a broad subset of sports fans, not just one type of person,” Jamison said. ESPN Bet is targeting potential users outside of those who are already betting on sports, Penn Entertainment CMO Jennifer Weissman said.

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“Their entertainment experience is really where that whitespace [in the sports betting ecosystem] is,” Weissman said. “Everybody can be part of that sports conversation and part of the sports-betting experience.”

It’s a similar approach that other brands in the space have taken; challenger brand Underdog Fantasy opted for a similar message in its first major ad campaign around the same time last year.

To determine whether ESPN Bet’s campaign is achieving its goal of increasing sports-betting participation, Penn Entertainment is tracking the number of new people coming into ESPN Bet and into the Penn Play rewards program, which users are automatically enrolled in when they sign up for ESPN Bet, Weissman said. In Q4 of 2023, Penn Entertainment reported adding 1.2 million members to Penn Play, with 90% of that growth attributed to ESPN Bet. Last month, the company said that its online segment, including ESPN Bet, brought in $208 million in revenue in Q1.

The Penn Entertainment and ESPN teams are also looking at retention and engagement rates, such as how often people place bets through the app, and brand awareness and sentiment around the product, Weissman added. She declined to share specific numbers but said her team is “generally really pleased with the results” on that front.

“It’s about driving the fan ecosystem,” Healy-Lucciola said. “When you think about how a fan engages with sports, whether it’s news, or it’s scores, or it’s fantasy, or it’s video, or it’s betting…How do we reduce the friction in a fan’s life between wanting to engage in these different parts of being a fan? We think that we can do this in a way that nobody else can.”

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