Is Florida Sports Betting Holding Up ESPN Shift Toward Direct to Consumer Model?

Dan Favale
By , Updated on: Jun 6, 2023 08:00 PM
Is Florida Sports Betting Holding Up ESPN Shift Toward Direct to Consumer Model?

The uncertain future of sports betting in Florida has no doubt had an impact on a vast number of companies. Might it be time to add ESPN to the list of potentially aggrieved parties? That depends on how you feel about the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader's pending business model shift, and how much of its feasibility is tied to Florida sports betting.

Let's start at the beginning. Recently, ESPN's parent company, Disney, announced that they eventually plan to detach from the Worldwide Leader and steer the sports media monolith away from cable into direct-to-consumer territory. This move, while without a timeline, will have massive ramifications on the larger sports media industry.

Many believe ESPN can be solvent without relying on cuts from cable subscriptions, and that a more direct revenue stream will buttress their viability. Others maintain Disney is significantly shrinking their sports media giant's customer base, which will result in steep subscription costs, smaller audiences, a de-emphasis on talent and, most critically, an inability to afford the rights to live sports, the company's bread and butter.

Various experts simply remain undecided—somewhere between moderately skeptical and cautiously optimistic. These minds are wondering whether Disney and ESPN can buoy their finances with strategic partnerships. That's where the legalization of sports betting in Florida comes in.

Legal Sports Betting Could be Critical to ESPN's New Business Model

Immediately, you might be thinking any reliance ESPN has on Florida sports betting implies an interest in opening up their own gambling services. That's actually not the case. Disney CEO Bob Iger, among many other high ranking officials, have repeatedly insisted they won't seek to build their own sportsbook. 

Instead, this is more about subsidizing profits from a direct-to-consumer shift by partnering with a sportsbook. Dylan Byers recently unpacked this subject for Puck.news:

"In order to make up for lost revenue, Disney will almost certainly pursue a brand-licensing deal with a sportsbook, lending its imprimatur and massive marketing machine to a gambling site in exchange for some meaningful additional revenue. Of course, Disney has long signaled that it will never go so far as to run its own sportsbook, a truly lucrative move that might tarnish the family brand, invite greater regulatory scrutiny and force financial disclosures no Disney executive wants to make. At the same time, Disney executives harbor some hope that Flagship could draw an additional audience of 'never-corders,' who never had a cable subscription to begin with, and that this would help make up for the revenue gap. But how much additional revenue this will create, and whether it will close the gap, is an intuitive bet based more on hope than hard data."

Partnering with a big-time sportsbook, in theory, is a little complicated. Disney is best known for Disney World and their presence in the state of Florida. Professional teams have linked up with sportsbooks in markets without legal betting, but it's a little different if a massive global company does the same.

This is especially true now, when Disney—and, by extension, ESPN—remains at war with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He has already removed many of the company's previous liberties. And they, in turn, have filed a lawsuit against him. How would he react if the company suddenly signs a lucrative deal with a sportsbook not permitted to operate in Florida?

Can Disney Wait Out Florida Sports Betting Timeline Before Shifting ESPN's Business Model?

The answer to this question is a big, fat "probably not."

Florida sports betting has been tied up in litigation since the end of 2021. It is currently being deliberated in the United States Court of Appeals. Though many are hopeful a Florida sports betting verdict will come soon, that doesn't mean the state will just be rolling out legal sports betting. The U.S. Court of Appeals could side with the plaintiffs and uphold the suspension of sports betting. Even if it sides with the state and Seminole Tribe's gaming compact, the case can still be elevated to the United States Supreme Court. Sports betting would remain suspended in that case.

Phrased bluntly: It could be years until the Florida sports betting battle is resolved. And while ESPN isn't planning to pivot all the way toward direct-to-consumer content that requires a brand-licensing deal with a sportsbook, the transition is expected to happen sometime in the near future.

Let's assume they go ahead with a sports betting partnership anyway. There's no telling how operators will react to the Florida market. They know full well residents will be flocking to mobile operators offshore, like any one of the reputable sites from our reviews of the best online sportsbooks. How much will they actually pay to get a slice of a market in which they're not legally allowed to do business?

Why Florida Sports Gambling May Not Hold the Key to ESPN's Future

There is one silver lining for Disney and ESPN throughout all of this: They are not tied to the Florida market alone.

As we already mentioned, they are a global entity. What's more, their primary base of operations is no longer in Florida. Sure, Disney World is still the company's main attraction. That's located in Florida. But the official Disney headquarters are in Burbank, California while ESPN's own headquarters are in Bristol, Connecticut. 

Perhaps things would be different if Disney moved a larger chunk of their day-to-day operations back to The Sunshine State. And that was, in fact, the plan. But Disney scrapped that $1 billion transitional project in light of their standoff with DeSantis. And so, since both ESPN and Disney are entrenched in so many other markets, the legalization of Florida sports betting may not be mission critical to the next phase of their collective existence.

Take a look at this list of the top online sportsbooks so you can find one that works for all of your sports betting needs:

Meet the author

Dan Favale

Dan Favale leverages over 12 years of sports journalism expertise in his role as New York staff writer. He provides in-depth analysis across the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, tennis, NASCAR, college basketball, and sports betting. Dan co-hosts the popular Hardwood Knocks NBA podc...

Online Sports Betting may receive compensation if you sign up through our links. Rest assured, we avoid biases and provide honest opinions on sportsbooks. Read more here.