Disney's not hopping on the sports-gambling gravy train

Despite a groundswell of interest in legalizing wagering, Bob Iger is no fan of sportsbook

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Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Co.
Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Co. Credit: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

While many legacy media companies are taking a long look at how to best leverage the coming boom in legalized sports gambling, the Walt Disney Co. isn't interested in getting into the numbers racket.

Speaking to investors Tuesday during Disney's quarterly earnings call, Chairman and CEO Bob Iger declared that the Mouse House would not be making a foray into the sportsbook business any time soon.

"I don't see the Walt Disney Co., certainly in the near term, getting involved in the business of sports gambling, in effect, by facilitating gambling in any way," Iger said. Which isn't to say that Disney will whitewash that particular aspect of sports; in fact, not only is the "Bad Beats" segment the most popular feature of Scott Van Pelt's midnight "SportsCenter," but ESPN's Chalk vertical is entirely devoted to covering sports gambling.

"I do think there's plenty of room" for Disney properties to report on the game within the game, Iger said. "ESPN has done some of this already, and they may do more, to provide information … that would be relevant and of particular interest to gambling. [They are] basically being fairly overt about it. But getting into the business of gambling—I rather doubt it."

Iger's articulation of Disney's stance on the sports gambling biz comes as New York looks to join neighboring New Jersey and other states in allowing for the establishment of legitimate sportsbook operations in a handful of upstate casinos. Analysts monitoring the situation believe that a growing acceptance of wagering on sports will create new revenue streams for the leagues and their media partners.

Iger's seeming disinterest in getting in bed with gambling may be a function of Disney's family-friendly lineage, but it also flies in the face of how other media executives are assessing the landscape.

Speaking at an industry confab last month, Turner President David Levy said that he saw nothing but upside in embracing gambling. "If you bet on a game, you're almost 80 percent to 90 percent more likely to watch the event," Levy said. "If you watch more of the event, you're engaged, and if you're engaged … the ratings will go up."

Under Levy's leadership, Turner on the day after Thanksgiving produced a streaming-only golf match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. While Turner wasn't raking in a vig on the event, the production for the most part served as an impetus for viewers to place bets on the action at other outlets. Updated odds appeared throughout the afternoon at the bottom of the screen, and Woods and Mickelson got in on the action with $200,000 in side bets.

Last month, gambling enthusiasts got a sneak peek at how the new frontier of European-style in-game wagering might look here in the States when the regional sports network offshoot NBC Sports Washington Plus televised a Wizards-Milwaukee Bucks game that included crawls with dynamically updated odds, point spreads and teasers.

In a simulation of in-game gambling, viewers were prompted to click over to the network's web site to weigh in on whether Bucks starter Bradley Beal would score more than 15 points in the first half. Select viewers who answered correctly were awarded $500.

Iger isn't the only media exec to express reluctance to wading into the gambling biz. On Jan. 23, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus told reporters that the Super Bowl LIII booth crew would defer to the network's official policy and refrain from indulging in any talk of spreads, over/unders and prop bets. "Gambling is legal in a few states now," McManus said. "It's not widespread across the entire country, and our policy has been that in our football telecasts, we don't discuss gambling information."

McManus added that CBS would be open to adjusting its stance should external circumstances merit an update. "We're going to remain very flexible and if we think it makes sense to change the policy, we will," McManus said. "We reevaluate it fairly often. Nothing is set in stone."

For his part, Iger's anti-gambling philosophy doesn't appear to be fostered by some sort of puritanical resistance to a rapidly evolving worldview. Fans of Marvel's potty-mouthed hero Deadpool, for example, needn't worry that Disney is going to sanitize the franchise once it makes the jump from Fox.

"We do believe there is room for the Fox properties to exist without significant Disney influence over the nature of the content," Iger said. "There is certainly popularity amongst Marvel fans for the R-rated 'Deadpool' films. We're going to continue in that business, and there might be more room for it."

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