Amid Launch of Sports Betting In NC, ESPN Struggling To Promote ESPN Bet Properly

There is no such thing as a risk-free investment, especially in the sports betting world.

On Sunday, ESPN’s Erin Dolan and Rece Davis sat down to talk about UConn vs. Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament. The two spoke about the lines for the game, and Dolan pointed out that she thinks the under on the Northwestern team total would be a smart bet.

“I expect this to be a slow game all around, with good defense on both sides of the ball,” she said. “If you look at the team total, although it seems low at 60.5 (points), I’m going to go under there.”

Nothing wrong with Dolan’s analysis. In fact, her suggestion was correct. Northwestern only scored 58 points in its loss to UConn.

How Davis responded, though, is what drew criticism.

“You know what? Some would call this wagering or gambling. I think the way you sold this, I think it’s a risk-free investment. That’s the way to look at it,” he said.

Even Dolan, who was there representing ESPN Bet, seemed slightly surprised by Davis’ phrasing at the end of the segment.

ESPN is new to the sports betting scene with its sportsbook, ESPN Bet, and it’s clear they want to make an impact. There’s been much more discourse around lines and odds for games than before, as evident by Dolan’s presence on the show.

But for a company looking to make a splash, Davis’ comments serve as a reminder that language around sports betting cannot be misleading. Especially in a state like North Carolina, where ESPN Bet Sportsbook NC is live.

ESPN just hasn’t quite figured out how to market its sportsbook properly yet.

Sportsbooks no longer use the phrase “risk-free” in their promotions

If you log onto one of your favorite NC online sportsbooks, you’ll see a handful of promotions. Chances are that one of those promotions will have the term “no sweat bet” or something similar.

Previously, operators such as FanDuel, DraftKings and BetMGM offered promos with the phrasing “risk-free bet.”

The promotion, at its core, is the same as what’s offered today. A customer wagers their own money on a bet, and if the bet loses, the operators then reimburse their account with a credit the same size as that wager. However, the credit cannot be withdrawn for cash. It must be used within the sportsbook. So, customers were risking their own money on these promos to earn credits, which weren’t the same as money. Thus, a risk.

FanDuel moved away from this in 2022 after catching backlash from regulators. Soon after, BetMGM and DraftKings did the same.

Operators have different ways to offer the same promotion. Previously, the Barstool Sportsbook (which does not exist anymore) offered a “first-bet refund” deal. BetRivers‘ offering was titled a “second-chance bet.” Even Caesars ditched the term and phrased the promotion as “Your first bet is on Caesars.”

Yes, most reasonable people know the risks involved with gambling, specifically in the fast-paced environment of sports wagering. But not everyone sets limits and is a responsible gambler and not all sportsbooks deliver responsible gambling content equally well.

Massachusetts questioned ESPN Bet before it launched

States across the country made it known: If sportsbooks are going to offer promotions like this, there needs to be crystal-clear language of the risk involved.

Look at Massachusetts, for example. That state is at the forefront of responsible gambling. The operators would tell you themselves that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is strict, but responsibility is what’s important.

The MGC had concerns over ESPN’s gambling venture before it launched. The commission thought that with ESPN reaching viewers under 21-years-old that underage gambling would spike. In turn, Massachusetts requires all sports betting branding wthin view of a major sports stadium to carry a 21+ warning.

It’s not crazy to think North Carolina will crack down similarly at some point. North Carolina Lottery Commission Deputy Executive Director Sterl Carpenter comes to NC after a stint with the MGC.

ESPN hasn’t quite figured out how to promote ESPN Bet in the proper way

The day after Davis’ comments on ESPN aired, he appeared on the Pat McAfee Show.

When he introduced Davis, McAfee explained that there are certain things you cannot say when it comes to promoting gambling ventures. But he hinted that a reasonable person would understand that the comments didn’t actually mean it was guaranteed to return bettors their money.

And that’s exactly what Davis said, tabbing his remarks a “throwaway line.”

“I don’t want to make this a big deal. It was just a small segment,” Davis said. “It was a throwaway line. Any reasonable person knew that I was being facetious because there’s nothing in life that comes without risk, especially gambling. That’s obvious for anyone who knows anything.”

McAfee also said that Davis apologized when introducing him, to which Davis clarified — he did not. And he did not apologize on the Pat McAfee show, either.

“I didn’t apologize — I clarified. I don’t think anybody really thought we were handing out free money. But maybe a better course of action in the future, I’ll go with the old David Letterman line of ‘This is an exhibition, not a competition, so please no waging.’ Maybe that’s the way we’ll go from now on.”

Davis appeared to be done with the situation when he spoke on the Pat McAfee show. His tone was that of someone who just wanted to move on. He said it himself — it was just a small segment and he didn’t mean what he said.

But ESPN can’t have similar slip-ups going forward. Responsible gambling isn’t a joke, especially when national media outlets are having a heyday with numerous high-profile gambling controversies.

If ESPN Bet wants to be in good standing with the Tar Heel State, as well as the 16 other jurisdictions in which it operates, it can’t afford similar lapses in judgment.

The term “risk-free” doesn’t belong in any gambling conversation, and responsible gaming needs to be at the forefront as North Carolina dives deeper into the market.


Image Credit: Sam Craft / AP Images

About the Author

Adam Hensley

Adam Hensley's byline has appeared in the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and sites within the USA Today Network. Hensley graduated from the University of Iowa in 2019 and spent his college career working as an editor and reporter for the Daily Iowan’s sports department.