August 17th, a new sports network that claims to be a panacea to all of our bad feelings toward sports networks, Fox Sports 1, will debut. You heard them, "happy days are here again." But did you ever stop and think about just how many sports networks really populate your cable package? It's a lot.
That's why I thought the world could use a guide to the good and bad of all of them. The big ones, the smaller ones, the ones owned by leagues. Ones your cable package refuses to carry, and ones I bet you didn't know existed. Consider this your primer to every sports network in existence, including Fox Sports 1. We all cover Turner Sports, though they don't have a specific network for sports.
This guide proves that A) Holy hell, there's a lot of sports on TV, and B) The battle for rights and the battle to keep viewers has more competitors than ever before. This shouldn't tell you who you should be watching, but can give you an indicator as to what sports network may be right for you.
Started: September 7, 1979
Live Games: What don't they have? Monday Night Football, The BCS title game (and the playoff system replacing it), NBA regular season and playoffs, MLB regular season and one playoff game, the Home Run Derby, pretty much every important college basketball game prior to mid-March. They also have, every major tennis tournament, a piece of some of golf's majors, the X Games, and the 2014 World Cup.
Studio Shows: SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, NBA Tonight, NFL Primetime, Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown, NASCAR Now, Outside the Lines, ESPN FC (coming soon)
Other Stuff: First Take, Pardon the Interruption, Numbers Never Lie, SportsNation, Dan Le Betard is Highly Questionable. Coming soon: Olbermann, a late-night talk show hosted by the former SportsCenter anchor.
Spinoff Networks: ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, ESPNNews, WatchESPN app. ABC is the network's broadcast partner.
Public face of the network: Chris Berman. He quickly became the network's first star back in the 1980's and has remained possibly the biggest name ESPN has ever produced. Still occasionally hosts SportsCenter, just for the yuks every now and then.
Actual face of the network: This is a good question. Though Berman hosts some of the most-watched properties on ESPN (Home Run Derby, the NFL Countdown and Primetime shows) do you see him enough to necessarily think of him as the face of ESPN? I'd go with someone more like Mike Tirico, who not only does play-by-play for the highest-rated show on cable television, but also covers the NBA, golf and tennis for ESPN.
The good: ESPN's commitment to journalism often appears wavering, but Outside the Lines (Bob Ley is the best) and 30 for 30 are unassailable when it comes to two different forms of journalism: the short-form interview and the long-form documentary. Also, ESPN's game coverage is fantastic. It gets lost in the shuffle, but The Worldwide Leader can make a Missouri Valley Conference basketball game in February look as good as Monday Night Football. Also, though many are afraid to say it, Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption are as formidable an hour of sports talk as you'll find on all of sports TV or radio.
The bad: Do the words "Embrace Debate" mean anything to you? The network has a lot of wasted space of just completely unwatchable sports debate shows. Numbers Never Lie, which was originally launched as a more analytically-inclined talk show, now has become a weird First Take clone that often ends up making about as much sense as a Japanese game show.
The ugly: First Take itself is awful, betraying much of what made ESPN great in the first place. The ESPYs are also a completely silly endeavor.
Where they stand in the sports media world: Numero Uno, and they will be for years to come. Despite the challenges from Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network (and they will be challenges), ESPN will be king for the foreseeable future. They are the network that's on in the bar. They are the network that's on next to CNN in your college cafeteria. They are the default. It takes a long time to take down the default. Everyone else is just getting started.
NBC Sports Network
Started: Launched in the mid-90's as the outdoor themed OLN, converted to "all-sports" (but really still mostly outdoorsy) VERSUS in 2006. The Comcast merger with NBC allowed it to be rebranded as NBCSN on January 2, 2012.
Live Games: Well, there's the NHL, and then... it gets a little murky. The Barclays Premier League moves to NBCSN in August, while the network has a fairly stout MLS presence already. They are the home for open-wheel racing with exclusive rights to Formula-1 and IndyCar. A mid-level college football and basketball package rounds things out. NBC's real step into this category came with a 10-year, $4.4 billion deal that brought 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup races to the network beginning in 2015. They also air ancillary Notre Dame programming, including the home games of the Fighting Irish men's hockey team starting this fall.
Studio Shows: The hour-long Pro Football Talk is Mike Florio's bully pulpit for the day, while The Crossover with Michelle Beadle and that really square-looking dude continues to try and find its way. Their former flagship, NBC Sports Talk, is on hiatus for retooling. NHL Overtime is the oft-overlooked nightly hockey show NHL fans always said they wanted. An underrated piece of programming is The Lights, a show with no studio banter, just a narrator guiding you through the pertinent highlights of the day in 20 minute segments for three hours a day.
Other Stuff: The Dan Patrick Show makes it's home on NBCSN.
Spinoff Networks: Universal Sports, Golf Channel. NHL Network is also technically a corporate partner, as NBC owns a piece.
Face of the network: Liam McHugh. While Bob Costas, the face of NBC Sports on the broadcast side, has a presence on NBCSN with Costas Tonight, McHugh hosts most of the network's flagship programming. He took a year off from hosting Tour De France coverage because his hosting of the Stanley Cup Final went into late June. He also anchors college football and Olympic programming.
The good: The network's game/race coverage is typically solid and looks terrific. NBCSN employs the two best hockey play-by-play announcers (Mike Emrick and Dave Strader) in America. The 36 series is some of the best short-form documentary programming their is. Also, whenever the network acquires a property, they put an insane amount of energy and coverage into programming around it. The network's weekly NFL program, NFL Turning Point, is also quite good.
The bad: The network has struggled to fill the hours leading up to game programming. An initial effort, NBC SportsTalk, had some solid ideas (and Adrian Wojnarowski!) but didn't draw much in terms of ratings. It was hiatus-ed for The Crossover with Michelle Beadle, a show NBC has put just as much effort into promoting, but also hasn't come up with an audience. Pro Football Talk, the daily NFL show with Mike Florio, just kind of rolls along.
The ugly: NBCSN has tended to stay away from the "ugly" category, in a change from predecessor VERSUS. They aired things like The T. Ocho Show, FanArchy, and Sports Soup.
Where they stand in the sports media world: There were some who, when Fox Sports 1 was announced, immediately relegated NBC Sports Network to a rung below it. Closer to CBS Sports Network than FS1, a lot of people felt. The NASCAR deal, however, is a game changer. It will bring more big audiences to the network and bridge the gap between NHL seasons, which has been a problem since the days of VERSUS. It leaves Fox will more valuable fall/winter programming, but NBC with better summer programming (NASCAR doubles and triples what MLB draws on cable). It'll be a two-way battle in 2015 to compete for No. 2.
Fox Sports 1
Starts: August 17, 2013.
Live Games: Fox Sports 1 will take over the Fox Saturday Game of the Week package starting next April. They'll own the rights to two of the League Division Series, and possibly air some games from whichever LCS Fox has rights to in any particular year. Otherwise, the network is counting on a huge package of Big 12 and Pac-12 (along with some Conference USA) college football games, as well as basketball from the new Big East Conference, to carry it for much of the year. They'll also be devoting time to UFC and boxing. The UEFA Champions League and CONCACAF Gold Cup head Fox's diminished soccer programming, though they will have rights to the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.
Studio Shows: Fox Sports Live is the network's flagship program. They'll air nightly against the 11 p.m. ET SportsCenter seven days a week. They'll also have studio shows devoted to the NFL (Fox Football Daily), soccer (Fox Soccer Daily) and NASCAR (NASCAR Victory Lane, which carries over from the SPEED Channel). On Saturday, the network will air Fox College Saturday, a two-hour pre-game show which goes head-to-head with College Gameday. In 2014, the network will launch a nightly MLB studio show.
Other Stuff: Regis Philbin hosts Crowd Goes W!ld, a daily sports debate show described as an "alternative" version of the format you're used to seeing. The network will also air the documentary series Being, and hit reality entry The Ultimate Fighter, which had aired on FX for the past few seasons.
Spinoff Networks: Oddly enough, all of the would-be spinoff networks (Fox Soccer, SPEED) are leaving the air to make room for FS1. There are rumors of a Fox Sports 2 in the works, but for now they remain just rumors.
Public face of the network: The network debuted themselves with a ton of faces from their roster of broadcast stars. Erin Andrews has a role on the network, and she's likely the biggest name of anyone appearing on FS1.
Actual face of the network: FS1 is probably hoping it's Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole. Hired away after spending years as the most popular sports anchors in Canada, Onrait and O'Toole are -- along with Charissa Thompson and an eclectic panel that includes former tennis star Andy Roddick -- responsible with taking on not only SportsCenter, but now Olbermann. This is considered ironic because Onrait/O'Toole are considered the contenders for the old Olbermann/Patrick throne.
The good/bad/ugly: None of us have, obviously, seen much of what Fox Sports 1 is going to look like, so we'll refrain on actually commenting about their programs. I've heard surprisingly good things about Regis' show, despite the title. I remain a bit of a skeptic on it. Rumors of Jason Whitlock-hosted debate show screams disaster, however. Fox Sports Live seems like the network's best bet at success, with Fox Football Daily as the safest.
Where they stand in the sports media world: Though NBCSN has bulked up, FS1 is everyone's desired contender for the throne. A lot will ride on upcoming NBA rights negotiations. Nobody believes Fox won't be a player at that table, and many believe that the NBA may retain a partnership with ESPN and launch a new one with Fox at the same time. NBC Sports Network launched gradually, but Fox Sports 1 is launching BIG. That's how Fox Sports has always operated, and it's almost always been successful. Will it work on a 24/7/365 scale?
CBS Sports Network
Started: The network launched as College Sports Television on June 2, 2002. The eventually became CBS College Sports Network in 2008. The transition was made to CBS Sports Network on April 4, 2011.
Live Games: CBSSN is still largely relegated to college programming. They have rights to Mountain West, Conference USA and service academy (Army & Navy) football. They also have basketball games from those two conferences, as well as the Patriot League, Atlantic 10, and the Big East women's conference. College hockey has a role on CBS, with the newly-formed NCHC airing much of its big games on the network.
As far as pro sports go, CBSSN has the rights to both major lacrosse leagues (MLL and NLL), the NBA D-League, Arena Football, as well as PBR and AVP. The network airs U.S. Open tennis qualifying and early round matches, and ancillary programming for CBS' Masters and PGA Championship coverage.
Studio Shows: Rome, Jim Rome's current daily vehicle, airs nightly at 6 p.m. ET. Leadoff, a show starring college hoops analyst Doug Gottlieb, airs at midnight ET. During football season, CBS's NFL analysts do a Monday QB show.
Other Stuff: The network simulcasts Tim Brando's radio show, and on some days, it takes up six hours of programming between the original broadcast and an encore.
Spinoff Networks: Not really any spinoff networks, but CBS owns a ton of digital assets in the world of college sports. Showtime shares Jim Rome with CBSSN.
Face of the network: Probably Rome, who's show airs at a prime hour for sports viewing, and also cross-promoted between The NFL Today and his Showtime series.
The good: Rome remains a top-notch interviewer and personality who brings credibility to any network he's hosting a show on.
The bad: There's just... not enough here, really. At least NBCSN right now has quality, often well-rated game programming to add into their lineup eight-nine months a year.
The ugly: Doug Gottlieb is still on?
Where they stand in the sports media world: Still behind NBC Sports Network, at least for the time being. Will automatically fall behind FS1 upon its debut. CBSSN seems okay with that though, and merely uses it to supplement CBS Sports, rather than stand as its own entity.
Started: The NBA on TNT launched Turner Sports on October 30, 1988.
Live Games: TNT has kept a relationship with the NBA for 25 years, and annually airs a weekly doubleheader, the All-Star Game and one of the conference finals. TBS is the home of a weekly Sunday baseball game, as well as most of the post-season and one LCS (through the end of this year. TBS will cut back to half the LDS and one LCS starting next year). TNT also airs a summer package of NASCAR races (ending in 2014). The crown jewel is the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which TBS will air the championship of numerous times over the next decade. Early round coverage of the PGA Championship airs on TNT as well.
Studio Shows: The network airs no regular sports shows, but does produce pre- and post-game coverage for MLB, NBA and NCAA programming. This includes the perennial Emmy-winner, Inside the NBA.
Other Stuff: The network will occasionally air college hoops documentaries around NCAA Tournament time on TruTV.
Spinoff Networks: TNT, TBS, TruTV, NBATV.
Public face of the network: Ernie Johnson. He's the host of Inside the NBA, easily the most-beloved sports studio show on the air today. Those duties extend to NCAA Tournament studio host. He also does play-by-play for one the MLB League Championship Series on TBS, and golf on TNT.
Actual face of the network: Let's face it, nobody can contain Charles Barkley. He is the most popular analyst currently working. Probably the only sports television analyst capable of hosting Saturday Night Live multiple times.
The good: Turner Sports doesn't have to rely on programming 24 hours a day, just largely focusing on game coverage. Which is good, because they're good at it. They're the best at covering the NBA on a year-round basis. They also have Marv Albert, who is the voice of basketball in this country.
The bad: Their MLB coverage leaves a lot to be desired. The broadcasts often feel thrown together. The network is starting to aim for stability. Keith Olbermann will host their studio show this year, with an option for next year. Johnson likely isn't going anywhere, and the network recently locked up lead analyst Ron Darling to a long-term contract.
The ugly: Because Turner doesn't have to program 24 hours, they mostly avoid any truly terrible decisions.
Where they stand in the sports media world: Turner just kind of looms large whenever there's big events, because they're often taking away from the big sports networks whenever they cover something. They don't really need to be number one, because their non-sports programming is also very successful (what up to Franklin & Bash!). They just kind of pop in every once and a while and are very good at doing so.
(NOTE: We'll be judging the league networks a little different, without a "Where they stand" bit. Also, were putting general sports networks in here, too).
Started: November 4, 2003. Yep, NFL Network's a decade old.
Live Games: The NFL Network has a package of 13 Thursday night games. Though this draws huge ratings to the network, the quality of said games are up for debate, and often teams complain about playing on Thursday nights as it is.
Flagship Show: NFL Total Access is the network's nightly news roundup, though some might say NFL Gameday, their terrific Sunday morning pre-game show is worthy of that title.
Other Programming: NFL Net, more so than any other league network, just bombards you with content. They air an NFL morning show, NFL AM, a ton of documentary programming, and they always blanket every major NFL event with coverage. They are the gold standard when it comes to this stuff.
Face of the Network: Rich Eisen. The funny, affable former SportsCenter anchor hosts Thursday Night Football, NFL Gameday and a TV version of his entertaining podcast. He's also their host for NFL Draft and Super Bowl coverage.
Good: NFL Gameday is one of the better Sunday NFL shows. A Football Life and America's Game, the two most well known of NFL Net's documentary series, are spectacular. The thing the network does better than any other is fill time during off-seasons. There's usually something worthwhile going on at NFL Network during the off-season, at least once a week.
Bad: The network has so many people employed, that often they don't stand out. Some could argue that the NFL Network has influenced other sports channels to be so much more NFL-focused to avoid those other networks from losing viewers. That just shows that NFLN is doing an excellent job, however.
Started: January 1, 2009
Live Games: MLB Network airs 150 live regular season games, and through some magical force of will, 150 Spring Training games. They're usually on the air with at least one game every day that ESPN and Fox aren't. Seriously, it's almost a capable substitute for owning the Extra Innings package. They air approximately four-five showcase games a month. On these games, they use their own broadcasters. The rest are picked up feeds from local networks. MLB Network covers two LDS games each year, and also owns rights to the World Baseball Classic.
Flagship Show: MLB Tonight airs from 6 p.m. ET until around 1 a.m. ET on non-live gamenights, and in various afternoon timeslots on Saturday and Sunday.
Other Programming: Talk shows like The Rundown, Intentional Talk and MLB Now populate the network's day. They also have Prime 9 and other archival shows to fill time in the off-season. Studio 42 with Bob Costas is an interview series hosted by the famous broadcaster. MLB Hot Stove aired as a morning show during the off-season.
Face of the Network: Matt Vasgersian, who is one of the main hosts of MLB Tonight, and also does play-by-play for many of their showcase games. He also hosts Fox's coverage of the League Championship Series and World Series, which are covered by MLB Network broadcasters. Greg Amsinger is one of MLB Tonight's most frequent hosts.
Good: They're also a network capable of filling most of the day with watchable programming. MLB Tonight can be hit-or-miss depending on who's on the show that night. They have, however, proven an innovator, with Ballpark Cams an idea copied by the NHL Network. In a world where ESPN's baseball content was seemingly slipping, they have really filled a niche. Their game coverage is also quite good, and gives us a chance to see Bob Costas do the one thing we all admit he's really good at, calling baseball games. The network also has a deep commitment to journalism, employing some of the game's best insiders.
Bad: The networks recent foray into "debate" shows, MLB Now, can be a little too over the top. Intentional Talk is absolutely over-the-top. The debate over analytics and sabermetrics can prove problematic for the network, as it often feels -- as baseball talk in general feels -- like a real clash of dichotomies.
Started: March 17, 1999 as NBA.com TV.
Live Games: Similar to MLB Network and NHL Network, NBA TV is live with games during night when ESPN and TNT aren't. They'll often produce their own coverage, and they always do for the select number of playoff games the network airs.
Flagship Show: NBA Gametime, which airs in both a live format and a recap show at the end of the night.
Other Programming: The classic weekly recap series NBA Action is on NBA TV. One on One with Ahmad Rashad is also a part of their programming. They spent the last season airing a documentary on the Brooklyn Nets' campaign. They've also aired NBA Open Court, a forum to discuss the game with some of the best basketball analysts around.
Face of the Network: Matt Winer. Ernie Johnson often hosts programming with the Inside the NBA crew on NBA TV, but Winer is the most frequently seen face.
Good: The Open Court shows were a brilliant idea during the lockout, and the network tends to be there whenever fans need them during the season.
Bad: Summers, and even daytime/afternoon programming can be a little bit of a struggle for NBA TV. While they're all packed in on game nights, it's hard to find a reason to tune in when there's no basketball, whereas MLB Network and NFL Network can usually dig up something good.
Live Games: 78 live games per season, plus broadcasts of whatever post-season games can't fit on NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC. None of them are produced by the NHL Network, though they do use their own graphics.
Flagship Show: NHL Tonight, the 10 p.m. ET recap show that also features live look-ins to late games.
Other Programming: Well... let's see. NHL On the Fly goes from 7-10 p.m. ET and provides exclusively live look-ins. Then there's NHL Live, the two-hour daily talk show that airs live from New York City (most of NHL Net's production is done from Toronto). The problem is, none of these shows air during the off-season. More on that later.
Face of the Network: Kathryn Tappen. The former NESN broadcaster (and New Jersey native!) hosts NHL Tonight and anchors live coverage of all major events.
Good: When the network covers said live events, they are often very good at it, and provide hours of good hockey talk. I'll vouch for NHL Live too, as Steve Mears and EJ Hradek make for a great team.
Bad: The network's graphics could use an update, as could their studio in general, which looks out-dated compared to the other three league networks. I'd also like to see some live, in-person game coverage, at least for the post-season.
Ugly: The NHL Network stayed completely off the air during the lockout, settling to air reruns after reruns of old playoff games. They also do the same thing during the NHL off-season. From mid-July to mid-September, they air no original studio programming. That's not just not giving people a reason to watch, that's not giving them a reason to subscribe, period.
Live Games: The Big Ten channel airs 35-40 football games and 60-65 men's basketball games each year, including some Big Ten Tournament action. They air pretty much every other sport and its championship game or tournament as well. The network will add the Big Ten hockey conference this year.
Flagship Show: Big Ten Network doesn't necessarily go for a flagship show, it rather surrounds its big events with pre- and post-game coverage, while leaving the rest of the week without a regular studio show.
Other Programming: Probably more than any other network, including the NFL, the Big Ten Network has so much ancillary programming, often tailored to one of the conference's schools. As mentioned before, they have studio shows for football, men's and women's basketball, and often hockey. They also air weekly shows for football, baseball and basketball, shows dedicated to work done in the community, and often school-produced programming.
Face of the Network: Dave Revsine. The former ESPN anchor hosts much of their big-time football and basketball studio programming, and is on site with the network at the Big Ten basketball tournament and football championship game.
Good: The network does what it's supposed to do, in that it fills an extremely narrow niche that likely caters to students, alumni, and those weirdos who support college sports teams despite never going to those schools.
Bad: I feel like I've seen the same classic games 20-25 times each on Big Ten Network. During football and hoops seasons, a nightly show might not be bad.
Live Games: Well, let's try to explain Pac-12 Network to the uninitiated. Kind of like Fox Sports Net, Pac-12 Net is a national feed that splits into seven regional channels (Los Angeles, Arizona, Bay Area, Mountain, Oregon and Washington, as well as the national feed) to cover pretty much every football, basketball and Olympic sport match that ESPN, ABC, Fox and the other major networks don't. Whatever that adds up to.
Flagship Show: Pac-12 Live, though it's a weekly show, not ad daily one.
Other Programming: Classic games, football coach's shows, documentary programming on famous alumni... pretty much following the Big Ten playbook.
Face of the Network: Summer Sanders hosts a lot of Pac-12 Network studio programming. I'm sure other people are involved, but I was raised on Nickelodeon in the late 90's, so we're going with Summer Sanders here.
Good/Bad: I'll be upfront here and say that I've never been able to catch the Pac-12 Network, as it just isn't available to me. In highlight packages their game coverage looks good, and the talent they have assembled for live game and studio programming have decent reputations. It'll just be a matter of better carriage out east for them in the future.
Started: January 17, 1995
Live Games: PGA Tour, Champions Tour, LPGA, European Tour and the Web.com Tour all have numerous events on the Golf Channel. The network airs mostly early-round coverage of over 30 PGA events, but also all four rounds of 13 others. They provide full-round coverage of all the other major tours. They'll also be getting a little thing called the Olympics when golf joins the party in 2016.
Flagship Show: Golf Central, a nightly half-hour look around golf. The show has been on the network since its inception in 1995. Live from... airs, well, live from all of the major PGA Tour and LPGA events.
Other Programming: Morning Drive, a two-to-three hour morning talk show, which is now co-hosted by Ahmad Rashad. Feherty, an Emmy Award-winning interview series starring the popular golf analyst. Big Break, sort of the Ultimate Fighter of the golf world. Big Break will feature NFL players next season. Various golf magazine programs and instructional shows.
Face of the Network: Kelly Tilghman, who has been with the network since Day 1. She's the first woman to serves as lead play-by-play for the PGA Tour and also co-hosts Morning Drive and Golf Central. A rep for Golf Channel also suggests Brandel Chamblee and Holly Sonders. NBC's excellent broadcast team, including Dan Hicks, Roger Maltbie and Johnny Miller, also appear on the network.
Good: The network is, more or less, the go-to place for the PGA on Thursdays and Fridays. They surround every tournament with as much coverage as, I assume, a golf fan could want.
Started: May 2003
Live Games: The Tennis Channel shares cable rights to the US, French and Australian Open tournaments with ESPN and ESPN2.
Flagship Show: Tennis Channel doesn't appear to have one, though they are live and on-site at the majors they cover.
Other Programming: Series built around players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Rene LaCoste, instructional shows, a profile series called Tennisography, historical shows like Signature Series and Best of 5. Classic US Open matches are are also featured.
Face of the Network: The Tennis Channel features respected play-by-play men like Ian Eagle, Brett Haber and Bill Macatee, and an analyst stable that includes Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova. They don't, however, appear to have that signature face.
Good: They broadcast tennis and employ Ian Eagle. That seems like enough for me.
Bad: The network's visibility is low, and the profile of tennis is low in general outside the major tournaments, though that's hardly Tennis Channel's fault.