A decade ago, ESPN gambling analyst Doug Kezirian was toiling in Las Vegas as the host of a local radio show that specialized in sports wagering. A good friend in the city who was a pro sports bettor told him his information was so good, he should be reaching a wider audience on a TV show.
“I just looked at him and laughed and said the stigma is too severe,” Kezirian recalled in a recent interview. “It’s so taboo.”
But his pal would have been wise to open a betting line on Kezirian’s future gig. Starting Monday, the Los Feliz native will host “Daily Wager,” a daily program on ESPNews airing at 3 p.m. and available for streaming on the ESPN app.
It’s the first regularly scheduled program from the Walt Disney Co.’s sports media behemoth solely dedicated to gaming-related information and data on upcoming contests, and it likely won’t be the last as legal sports betting spreads throughout the country.
The Supreme Court ruling in May that legalized sports betting is expected to be a boost for sports talk shows, which are the low-cost moneymakers for outlets that need programming to supplement their live play-by-play telecasts. Open discussion of odds, point spreads and other analytical data related to wagering on pro and college games each night could potentially energize the format for an audience that has a financial stake in the outcomes.
“The changes in the law open up an entirely new genre of entertainment,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis.
Other sports networks are already on the bandwagon. ESPN rival Fox Sports 1 has been running a daily wagering show since September. WarnerMedia’s digital sports website Bleacher Report announced last month that it is building a studio inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where it will produce gaming-related content.
But as the country’s leading source of sports programming, ESPN, with its entry into gaming-themed shows, is marking the strongest indication yet of an attitudinal shift toward a once-verboten subject on which sports TV coverage has traditionally tread lightly.
Eight states have legalized [gambling], with many more to come, and now a Disney-owned network is placing a seal of approval on openly betting on games.
“A daily ESPN show is an important milestone,” said Lee Berke, president of the consulting firm LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media. “Eight states have legalized it, with many more to come, and now a Disney-owned network is placing a seal of approval on openly betting on games.”
Even when oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder became a household name through his exposure on CBS in the 1970s and ’80s, sports league sensitivity over illegal betting limited his ability to give point spreads on the air. Play-by-play announcers usually made opaque references to the interest of point-spread bettors during games in which the win-loss outcome was already obvious.
Rishe believes a major turning point came in 2014 when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that sports betting should be legal and “into the sunlight” so it can be monitored and regulated.
“The leagues are out there doing new sponsorship deals with sports betting companies,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN vice president of programming and scheduling. “They understand this is an important marketplace for them as well.”
More wagering experts have been integrated into pregame and highlight programs in recent years. ESPN’s “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt” has a popular segment called “Bad Beats,” which humorously focuses on heartbreaking, last-minute plays that result in teams failing to cover the spread.
Van Pelt sidekick Steve Coughlin will be one of the contributors to “Daily Wager” along with ESPN radio host Chris “The Bear” Fallica, ESPN.com gambling industry reporter David Purdum, Las Vegas-based handicapper Preston Johnson, fantasy football analyst Anita Marks and sports betting expert Joe Fortenbaugh.
Rishe believes programs that provide usable data for bettors have the potential to draw younger viewers who have drifted away from traditional TV for sports news. ESPN lost about 2 million domestic subscribers over fiscal 2018 ending in September, according to an annual earnings report released by Disney. This leaves ESPN with a total U.S. subscriber base of about 86 million, down from a peak of just more than 100 million in 2011.
A Bleacher Report survey found that 63% of fans between 21 and 34 years old believe sports betting is acceptable, compared with 51% of fans overall.
“Just imagine you get someone on their phone watching the ESPN games show on Sling getting their tips and then turning around and with an app placing a bet on information they just saw 30 seconds earlier,” Rishe said. “That audience is out there, and they are extremely engaged.”
Kezirian, 41, has been obsessed with sports wagering since he was a kid. As the youngest of five boys, he saw his two older brothers bet five dollars on Super Bowl XX. After graduating with a degree in economics from Brown University, he immersed himself in the analytics and data related to gaming and became an expert as a sports journalist in Las Vegas, where “the home team is betting,” he said.
While wager-related data crunched by ESPN’s statistic and information group will line the screen during “Daily Wager,” Kezirian said the program’s content will still be accessible to the non-betting fan.
“We’re still in Year 1 of legalization and I think there is a new audience that is open-minded to the space, so we want to be inclusive,” he said.