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Penn Attempts to Leverage ESPN Brand for Its Online Sportsbook; What Will it Take to Be Successful?

Matt McEwan

by Matt McEwan in Sports Betting News

Aug 12, 2023 · 9:15 AM PDT

ESPN camera capturing college football game
Aug 31, 2018; Madison, WI, USA; ESPN College Football logo on a tv camera prior to the game between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
  • Penn National is moving on from Barstool Sportsbook, ending their relationship with Barstool Sports in general, in favor of a new deal with ESPN to launch ESPN Bet
  • Barstool Sportsbook never gained significant market share and ran into some regulatory issues
  • What will Penn have to do differently this time around to be successful?

Earlier this week, we received industry-shaking news that Penn National was moving on from Barstool Sportsbook in favor of a deal with ESPN to launch ESPN Bet. The new ESPN branded sports betting app will take over as Penn’s online sportsbook. While this announcement has certainly been successful in ruling the news cycle this week, that doesn’t mean the sportsbook will be successful.

Penn has likely learned from their Barstool Sportsbook experiment that brand isn’t enough to make a sportsbook successful. Using Dave Portnoy, his Barstool brand, and riding the backs of the other personalities in-house led to a market share of less than 5%. If they simply plan to carry over what was Barstool Sportsbook and just change the branding to ESPN and their personalities, I fear they’ll suffer a similar fate to their first attempt.

While there are some key differences between Barstool Sports and ESPN—much bigger and more diverse sports audience at ESPN, no more regulatory / responsible gaming concerns with ESPN, nationally broadcasted sports channels to market their product on etc.—they still need to ensure they are offering a quality product in their sports betting app, which they were not previously, if they are going to come anywhere close to their lofty goals/expectations (20% online sports betting market share).

Penn slide displaying value creation after ESPN Bet agreement

So, let’s focus on the product here. What makes a good sports betting app? I’d love to hear from all of you as well! After all, if Penn gets this right with ESPN Bet, we (as bettors) all win. Not only will we have a quality sportsbook to use, but it will also force their competition to innovate as well. From my eyes, we can boil it down to four things every good sports betting app needs:

Quality Bonuses for New & Existing Bettors

In my opinion, one of the most important parts of acquiring and retaining bettors is by offering quality bonuses. I appreciate Penn is running a business here and cannot simply give money away all the time. The good news is free money is not the only attractive bonus.

Let’s start at the beginning with a good signup offer. The standard in the industry seems to be some sort of first bet match up to $1,000 or some sort of bet/get in the realm of 5/150. (Some might offer as much as $200 when we get to NFL kickoff.) However, when Barstool Sportsbook relaunched with their upgraded app in July, they changed the mechanics of their new user bonus to a 100% deposit match up to $1,000.

Penn's new user bonus

I hope they move away from this. If you read the T&Cs of this offer, which are seen in the picture above, you’ll see that: (a) it’s not a true deposit match since the matched money get stored in a “bonus fund;” (b) the bonus fund will be released at a 5% cashback rate, meaning you would have to risk $20,000 in order to unlock the full $1,000; and (c) you only have 30 days to unlock the funds before they disappear.

With that knowledge, this isn’t a great offer and I hope Penn decides to up their ante with ESPN Bet. I fear this offer will only confuse and frustrate bettors, potentially leading to poor retention. Go with a nice bet/get to give new users some free bets to play with as they test out your sportsbook.

Once they get users in the door, you have to offer them some quality all user bonuses. Again, appreciate this is a business, not a charity. We all love the FanDuel Spread the Love and DraftKings Hammer the Over bonuses that come along, but it’s free money and there’s a reason these offers are so infrequent. So how can ESPN Bet keep users coming back with bonuses that aren’t free money?

While daily odds boosts can be attractive if done well, they should also look to what DraftKings and Bet365 have done in offering same-game parlay profit boosts. The former offers an SGP boost up to 100%, which you have to load up seven legs to get the full value but even a three-leg SGP gets boosted 20%, on a daily basis throughout the summer for MLB and each day of the week with an NFL game once we get to September. The latter offers a straight 30% SGP boost, minimum three legs and +100 odds for the full SGP, on select games each day but sometimes leaves it open for you to decide which game to use it on.

DraftKings' MLB stepped up SGP bonus

These are attractive bonuses for many bettors and the operator too—I’m sure I’m not the first person to say parlays of any nature are not the smartest bets. Whatever the specific bonus/mechanics are ESPN Bet decides to go with, the important part is offering them.

It would also be smart for Penn to run a pre-registration period ahead of their expected November launch, similar to what we generally see when new states are preparing to launch online sports betting. Get users in the door early and have them excited for your launch.

User Experience in ESPN Bet App Needs to Be Smooth

I have had many new bettors, and even some seasoned bettors, tell me they have given up on a specific sportsbook due to a poor user interface / experience in the app. Here are the features I believe make a sports betting app smooth:

  • Quick registration and login

Many people are still skeptical about giving away their info, especially credit card info, online. Hopefully ESPN Bet can tap into its other suite of paid products to help speed up the KYC (know your consumer) process.

  • Quick loading times

One sportsbook in particular had a pretty slow app, which they have fixed now, and the result is a major gap between them and the top players in the industry when it comes to market share. ESPN Bet cannot afford to be anything less than stellar. The good news is theScore Bet, which uses the technology Penn used to upgrade the Barstool Sportsbook app and will likely be used for ESPN Bet, loads very quickly from page to page.

  • Easy to navigate

Similar to the above, the new Barstool Sportsbook app was pretty easy to navigate. ESPN Bet will need to continue to build on that and ensure bettors know how to jump from NFL to NBA with one quick tap.

  • Organize betting markets appropriately in the app

While FanDuel does a lot of things well, this is potentially their biggest weakness. Trying to find a specific player prop in their app can be quite difficult at times. You may end up scrolling through countless folds of player props, because they’re each listed individually instead of grouped together, only to realize you missed the one you were looking for because it was squeezed between two different types of player props.

DraftKings is the best for this and BetMGM isn’t too far behind. When it comes to theScore Bet, they tend to lump all their player props into one category as well. I hope they take a page out of DraftKings’ book and organize their markets in a clean and efficient way.

Ensure “Table Stakes” Features of Sportsbook Are Covered

I’m going to keep this section concise. When I speak of “table stakes” features of a sportsbook, I am referring to the following (in no particular order):

  • Offer a wide range of betting markets, both in terms of sports and the types of bets within each sport
  • Provide bettors with the opportunity to ladder their player props & bet alternate lines for spreads and totals
  • Allow bettors to parlay all non-correlated events, especially cross-sport parlays
  • Offer a complete and relatively open same-game parlay feature for all major events
  • Offer quality live betting options
  • Keep lines/vig competitive in the market
  • Open betting lines in a timely fashion, specifically week-to-week NFL lines and futures for all sports
  • Don’t limit casual bettors

Did I miss anything?

Offer Bettors Something Unique

Everyone goes to DraftKings to bet MLB H+R+R (Hits + Runs + RBIs) props because they’re the only ones that offer this market. FanDuel has become known as the place for laddering thanks to all the opportunities they provide. Even BetRivers is known to allow you to remove the hook and bet -1 run lines and puck lines.

ESPN Bet needs to own something. Allow bettors to unlock their creativity and passion for sports / sports betting at your sportsbook and they will continue to come back. I have some ideas on what that could be if Penn wants to write me a check next!

Thankfully, Penn has some time to work on the product before it goes to the market, with an expected launch date for ESPN Bet being by Thanksgiving. With this much money being spent, I feel optimistic we (bettors) will see a lot of the features above when we have the pleasure of logging into the ESPN Bet app for the first time!

Have I missed anything? What else do you look for in a good sportsbook?

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