ESPNews's new studio, cross-platform consistency, and maybe a name change could go a long way in helping the worldwide leader cement its position in the growing gambling sector.

By Jacob Feldman
September 12, 2019

Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.

ESPNews has been looking different recently. Late last month, the network unveiled new graphics that now live almost permanently along the left-hand and bottom edges of the channel, displaying various betting odds, lines, and predictions.

Meanwhile the gambling show born on ESPNews, Daily Wager, has been promoted to ESPN2. It had its first NFL Sunday last weekend, though it was bumped back to airing on ESPNews, preempted by live F1 coverage. The show leaned on its roster of contributors to suggest picks and props (their best bets went 3-2 on Sunday and 1-2 on Monday) while throwing out wonkier analysis than could be found on other pregame shows. One analyst broke down the Chargers offensive line’s Pro Football Focus score, for instance, to (errantly) recommend the under 44.5 option in their matchup.

ESPN’s head of betting content Ilan Ben-Hanan hopes nuggets like that one, along with the various projections shown on the new ESPNews wraparound graphics, are appreciated by bettors and abstainers alike. “That kind of information is additive and interesting,” he said.

Daily Wager still has work to do. Its lack of traditional NFL graphics hurts it credibility, the camera work for its remote experts is inconsistent, and the background music—in my opinion—can be distracting. In the battle with Fox Sport’s Lock It In show, I prefer Lock It In’s production design, but give me Daily Wager’s content: more news you can use rather than views I could, well, do without. The production aspects can be cleaned up over time. “It’s gotten established much quicker than we thought,” Ben-Hanan said. “We have great producers and a great staff working on it. They will tinker around the edges, no different than any other show, whether it’s SportsCenter, NFL Live, or PTI.”

But where does that leave ESPNews, without Daily Wager but with Caesars odds shown on loops? The channel has generally lacked a clear mission since 2017, when following layoffs executives ended the 7-11 p.m. SportsCenter airings, leading to speculation about the network’s future. Despite SportsCenter's resurgence on ESPN and on emerging platforms, these days ESPNews mainly carries simulcasts of ESPN Radio shows, some overflow games, and the occasional NWSL match.

None of those necessarily align with the gambling data ESPNews now presents. But in 2020, ESPN will open a new studio in Las Vegas. A recent Caesars press release suggested the new hub could go live as soon as this winter. Tying whatever shows emerge from that space to ESPNews at least at launch would once again give the channel a clear purpose. Programmers could decide to use the channel solely as a testing ground, perfecting the graphics and shows before moving them elsewhere, like they’ve done with Daily Wager, but Daily Wager regular Anita Marks told Glenn Clark Radio in March, “The ultimate game plan is for ESPN to turn this (ESPNews) into a gambling channel maybe in the next few years.”

I asked Ben-Hanan about the ultimate game plan. “I would say anything like that is early at this point,” he said. “Longer term, anything is kind of possible.” So... not a no.

Discussing the new odds compression—the term used to describe the wraparound graphics that “compress” the rest of the broadcast into a smaller box—Ben-Hanan compared the offering to the myriad numbers CNBC blasts at its viewers. Now that’s a network with a clear mission. “First in business worldwide. Capitalize on it” is their daytime slogan. Sports betting isn’t nearly as big as stock trading (nor are the regulars as prized of an audience for advertisers), but it’s easy to see how ESPN could adapt the same content strategy for sports: providing invested fans with up-to-the-minute news and reaction, whether or not the audience was attempting to profit off the details. Bringing fantasy gaming into the picture would only widen the potential reach.

Shows could include updates from Las Vegas’s sportsbooks, personality-driven prediction programs, or interactive contests. And, if I’m really wishcasting, an analytics-heavy ESPNews could be home to alternative game feeds at night with broadcasters and graphics prioritizing educating fans, gamblers or otherwise. Suddenly, ESPNews would be a lot more interesting. It only needs a new name.

WARREN SAPP IS STILL LAUGHING

Four years after being fired from NFL Network, Hall of Famer Warren Sapp is back in the media with a new podcast, 99 Problems. “When you faced me on a football field, you definitely had 99 problems,” he says. “Now I’ve retired that guy and buried him. So when you’ve got the podcast on, your 99 problems go away…. When you’re listening, I want to make whatever you’ve got going on a little easier.”

Sapp laughs frequently while describing the new show, a HiStudios production, and his life in general at 46 years old. “Life is wonderful, my brother,” as he puts it. It’s not the attitude I expected given everything that has been reported about Sapp’s retirement years.

Sapp’s new gig is far from Showtime’s Inside the NFL, where he contributed from 2008 to 2011, or Dancing With The Stars, which he competed on over a decade ago. He was an NFL Network analyst until 2015, when he was fired following charges of soliciting a prostitute and assault, which were later dropped. Sapp defended himself against those allegations—and more recent claims of sexual harassment—in a 2018 SI feature by Tim Rohan.

He’s largely been out of the spotlight since, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Talking about his past TV work, Sapp says that while he’s still close with several of his former on-air colleagues, “I got that out of my system. Now I’m diving and fishing and tailgating. Do you know how lovely a tailgate is on a Saturday or a Sunday? I’d never experienced that. Talk about a virgin.”

Sapp has six kids, ages 11 to 22. One, Warren Sapp II, is a freshman football player at FAU. Another has played goalkeeper at Missouri. “I was raised in a town where it was, dead and gone by 24,” Sapp says. “I didn’t see myself as a 46-year-old. I’m just taking it one day at a time.” Maybe most importantly, he also has a new left hip, having gotten surgery last December. “That was the best decision I’ve made in the last 11 years,” Sapp says. “Being upright is enough.”

SIGHTLINES

● Bryan Curtis profiled Booger McFarland ahead of his big Monday Night Football debut.
● The Athletic is planning a new daily podcast that will be available to non-subscribers.
● A new weekly NFL Films project is coming to YouTube. The league has also renewed its deal with Facebook Watch, which now includes some archival content.
● DirecTV’s battle with ESPN has quickly gotten extremely petty, and I love it.
● Richard Deitsch covered all the media storylines coming out of the NFL’s first week.
● FuboTV started a new, free streaming sports network aimed at Roku Channel viewers.
● Out-of-market NFL games are now being shown in select AMC theaters.
● Rules analyst Gene Steratore has been added to CBS’s SEC coverage.
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THANK YOU, INTERNET...

...for this heartwarming story.

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