NFL Live castmembers Laura Rutledge, Mina Kimes, Dan Orlovsky and Marcus Spears will host an alternative stream of Sunday’s Tennessee Titans-Baltimore Ravens playoff game. They’ll be joined by Daily Wager regulars Doug Kezirian, Joe Fortenbaugh and Tyler Fulghum for Between the Lines, the first live NFL telecast for ESPN+.
The assignment comes after a rookie season for the quartet, who—along with Ryan Clark and Keyshawn Johnson—redefined the long-running studio show.
Selecting the group this spring, ESPN SVP Lee Fitting said, came with a decision to “push the envelope.” Johnson, at 48, ended up being the oldest newbie tapped as an analyst.
“Honestly, they’ve all shown me a certain level of respect,” Adam Schefter, 54, said of NFL Live’s cast shortly after a December episode. “Now I realize it’s because I’m so much older than them.”
When the NFL insider joined ESPN in 2009 as “the little brother” to fellow newsbreaker Chris Mortensen, Rutledge was just starting her sophomore year at Florida. Kimes was fresh out of Yale. Clark and Orlovsky were still in the middle of their NFL journeys. (Johnson, meanwhile, was just embarking on an ill-fated interior design pursuit.)
“Now I know how Mort feels,” Schefter said.
As ESPN and the NFL seek younger audiences, the new crew has started to deliver. Though it still makes up a small share of the audience, teenage viewership is up nearly 20% year-over-year (thanks in part to a move from 1:30 to 4 p.m.), even as the show, like most on TV, has seen overall declines. NFL Live overall is down 7% while ESPN was down 17% at the end of a year marked by canceled games and events.
NFL Live’s female viewership, meanwhile, is up 9%. “We’ve seen great growth among female viewers which is really, really cool,” Rutledge said. “That’s something that is a priority for ESPN in general.”
Similarly, ESPN+’s audience skews younger and more diverse, according to company data.
“From last season to this season, it’s altogether a different show from my perspective,” said director Jay Hammond, who had the same role last year but has been joined by new producer Mark Eiseman and new coordinating producer Lydelle King, among others.
Eiseman and co. have challenged TV orthodoxies, beginning with the show’s first shots. “Ahead on NFL Live,” past hosts would say at the start of most programs, teasing a handful of topics to be discussed during the program after a 15-second, animation-heavy intro. But not Rutledge.
She started Thursday’s show by welcoming viewers before quickly throwing to Schefter for the latest on Ryan Fitzpatrick and then immediately bringing in the day’s analysts. The show was off and running.
“Full credit to Lee and [ESPN vp of production] Seth [Markman] early on talking about what the show looks like,” Eiseman said. “They said, ‘Do we have to do a tease?’ It was like, Wow. Let’s take a second and think about that.”
Hammond keeps the energy up with active cameras, showing the desk from all angles and not shying away from putting the guts of NFL Live’s studio—lights and prep documents and teleprompters—in view. “I like to show the cameras in the background,” he said. “I try to involve the viewer in the conversation like they are sitting around the table.”
And the conversation doesn’t end when the show does. “Yes, we’ll bring you your TV show but we’ll also interact with you all day long on Twitter and Instagram,” Rutledge said. “I think for me, that’s knowing that this is no longer the traditional studio show world anymore and saying, ‘How can we roll with that?’”
Another part of rolling with that is recognizing that Monday at 4 p.m. won’t be the first time fans find out what happened the previous day. When Eiseman joined ESPN 15 years ago, shows often focused on “What is now?” he said. But “now” has become the domain of social media, and Eiseman found support for pivoting NFL Live to be about “What is interesting?” instead, he said. “The old mandate of ‘you have to be comprehensive’ has gone out the window as we rethought what sports TV looks like.”
Schefter still delivers news hits, but the show has also put an emphasis on segments that mix lectures with laughs. Sometimes that means Spears’s mom calls in; other times it means Spears shaking his head at Orlovsky breaking down the Chiefs’ huddle choreography.
“Sometimes the sport itself is taken so seriously that people forget how fun it is,” Kimes said. “I always wanted to be part of a show that blended that nerdiness with a sense of fun.”
NFL Live fits several of the trends that have marked ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro’s time in charge, including an emphasis on entertainment and a stated desire to satisfy league partners. In this case, NFL executives quickly approved the cast’s inclusion as part of ESPN’s playoff presentation.
Sunday’s MegaCast participation means joining two more trends. Alternative presentations have blossomed at ESPN, while the company has put a new emphasis on its direct-to-consumer subscription service. This weekend, ABC and ESPN will simulcast a traditional broadcast while ESPN2 and Freeform will offer distinct presentations along with ESPN+.
Available to those who don’t have cable, the “Between the Lines” stream will offer some betting content, along with play predictions, tape breakdowns and casual conversation.
“The intriguing dynamic and growing popularity of ‘in-game live odds’ is a phenomenon we want to continue exploring,” Fitting said. “Our goal with the MegaCast is to provide additive offerings to fans, and this combination in a non-traditional format is one we are eager to explore.”
Back in the spring, when the possibility of joining NFL Live fulltime first came up for Spears, he couldn’t help but think about all of the show’s past stars: Trey Wingo and Wendi Nix, Tom Jackson and John Clayton. He’d watched them all.
Then he found out the castmates higher-ups had in mind, from Schefter (”the godfather”) to Rutledge, whom he’d worked with since his days grinding at SEC Network.
“I was like, What the hell are they thinking?” he said with a laugh. “Nah man, I was crazy excited. It was a bit of nerves that came with that, knowing you’re going to be responsible for this along with your teammates, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t over the moon.”
Launching the show over Zoom brought its share of frustration, but it also brought the new team closer together. NFL Live‘s audience might be younger than before, but it’s probably still not as young as the average staff meeting, populated as it is with kids operating in the background.
Rutledge, Kimes, Orlovsky and Spears will be in the studio together for Sunday’s game. NFL Live talent will return the following day for a College Football Live telecast of the college football title game on Monday on ESPN2. And after that?
“I think this can usher in a new generation of what a studio show can look like,” Spears said.