ESPN’s ‘Between the Lines’ Broadcast Tackles Huge Challenge: Keep Rams-Cards Interesting

Next step in sports-betting-alternative-broadcast evolution combined ‘Daily Wager’ with ‘NFL Live’
Rams Odell Beckham
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Last Tuesday, Jan. 11, marked a significant anniversary in the U.S. sports betting space: three years since the first televised attempt at an alternate live-game broadcast focused on gambling.

Efforts have gone through a variety of iterations on local and national sports channels and streaming arms over the ensuing three years, building to ESPN’s Between the Lines broadcast as part of its wider “MegaCast” for Monday night’s NFL playoff game between the L.A. Rams and Arizona Cardinals. The one-sentence review: ESPN is getting close to nailing the formula, but this particularly dreadful game put an unreasonable burden on Between the Lines’ theoretical potential to keep viewers engaged.

The Rams led 21-0 at halftime against a lifeless Cardinals team and went up 28-0 one drive into the third quarter. Add in a number of lengthy referee deliberations and replay reviews — including one call on an A.J. Green drop in the second quarter that took the officials several minutes to get wrong, forcing Rams coach Sean McVay to throw the challenge flag and extend the delay by several more minutes, plus an extended injury timeout in the third quarter — and even the most hardcore football fans had to be contemplating better uses of their time.

Up to a certain point, a lousy game is the perfect storm for an alternative broadcast. If you were still watching by the end of the third quarter, only inertia could keep you tuned into the main ESPN feed. For those with the energy to press a button or two on their remote controls, this was the perfect game for checking out either the Between the Lines option or Peyton and Eli Manning on what everyone unofficially calls “the ManningCast.”

Unfortunately, this game might even have exceeded that point where placing in-game bets or sweating earlier wagers made it worth hanging around until the final whistle.

Small bites of ‘Daily Wager’

The Between the Lines telecast, available only to ESPN+ subscribers, took the approach of combining two separate broadcasts into one. For the majority of the game, viewers heard commentary from the NFL Live crew of Laura Rutledge, Ryan Clark, Mina Kimes, Dan Orlovsky, and Marcus Spears. For about 10 minutes during the pregame, throughout most of halftime, and whenever there was a commercial break on the main ESPN telecast, the Daily Wager trio of Doug Kezirian, Joe Fortenbaugh, and Tyler Fulghum took over.

It was a smart approach. Most other “betcasts” attempted these last three years have placed the betting-focused crew behind the microphones for the entire game, daring them to dig up wagering angles for multiple hours on end. Between the Lines’ hybrid approach allowed the gambling content to come in and out, totaling roughly 15% of the total broadcast.

Mileage on the NFL Live side is likely to vary. Backup quarterback turned all-pro analyst Orlovsky is a rising star and everyone at the table brought something insightful, but they were talking over each far too frequently, even for a telecast aiming for an informal vibe.

The Daily Wager side is the primary focus of this article, though, and Kezirian directed traffic there expertly. He, Fortenbaugh, and Fulghum all know their stuff with regard to betting and frequently rose to the challenge of making non-obvious observations.

For example, Fortenbaugh noted after the first two drives resulted in punts that these were both offenses that tended to gain momentum as a game wore on and in-game bettors should keep waiting for the point total to come down (it had already dropped from 49 to 45.5 with the sportsbook ESPN was using), then possibly live-bet the over. Fortenbaugh later adjusted his thinking to say that, with the Rams running the ball more than expected, an over bet might not be advisable. (The final tally landed at 45 points.)

Probably the most noticeable shortcoming in the Daily Wager commentary stemmed from a conundrum mostly beyond anyone’s control: Where do you draw the line on how much sports betting explanation you provide for those audience members who lack gambling knowledge? Early in the program, Kezirian and company took time to explain such basics as a -125 price meaning you risk $125 to win $100. There are no easy answers to how to handle this, but anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of betting is bound to find such brief dumbing-downs dull.

Other odds and ends

  • Unless we missed it, the broadcast never named the sportsbook whose odds it was using, though one presumes the lines originated from ESPN partner Caesars Sportsbook.
  • The broadcast was commercial-free, and for those watching either the main ESPN feed or the ManningCast, the Daily Wager segments acted as a fine commercial “flip to.”
  • The halftime airtime was well spent. With the Rams-Cards game already devoid of much intrigue, Kezirian, Fortenbaugh, and Fulghum spent most of the mid-game break analyzing the early lines for the following weekend’s divisional round games.
  • Kezirian turned early to the reliable point that betting interests can keep even a one-sided game compelling, especially when you have the opportunity to continue placing new wagers throughout the game. It needed to be said at least once. But as the game wore on, it started to feel like they were coming back to that angle to persuade viewers not to turn off their TVs.
  • The all-important fashion report: Fulghum surprisingly managed to pull off a pink sport coat over a gray hoodie, while Kezirian looked sharp in his blue suit until they moved from behind the desk to a group of lounge chairs, where his bright yellow socks made their presence felt by poking out between his blue pants and brown shoes. For his part, Fortenbaugh straddled the line between “Vegas cool” and “trying too hard” with an unlit cigar in his hand.

Photo: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY

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