Ranking the Networks

A quick programming note before we get to the rankings. I am not including single-sports networks such at The Golf Channel or NFL Network, because there's nothing really to compare them to. I will make one of exception, however: soccer networks, because there are several of those.

I will also note that I am sports fan, and I actually like all of these channels. I say this because I don't want the programming directors of the networks low on the list to jump out their 45th-floor windows. Surely they would without this disclaimers.

1. ESPN

Sorry, haters. I don't like the hype and the bling of ESPN any more than you do, but they do one thing very, very right, and that's all that matters: content. Between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and perhaps most importantly, WatchESPN.com (formerly known as ESPN3), they deliver a metric ton of the actual by-God games and their talking-heads shows are generally limited to afternoons and post-games.

You already know ESPN is where you are going for big matchups not on over-the-air television, but right now on WatchESPN.com, literally as I type this, you can watch Venezuelan League baseball, Louisville's final exhibition basketball game (vs. Bellarmine), and the WSOP Circuit event in Richmond.

Also, their "30 for 30" sports documentaries are very well-done and always compelling. Finally, a word about the ESPN hype machine. In the UK, they have a channel called ESPN America, for expats and fans of North American sports. The hype is virtually non-existent. Their interstitial ads are low-key. It's not a hype machine. It's a hype machine here because it works here. So be the change you want to see. Also, the "This Is SportsCenter" commercials are, it goes without saying, hilarious.

2. FOX Sports Network

It's sort of hard to compare FSN to other networks because their business model is so very different. They are a collection of regional networks, rather than a national network. So while FOX Sports Southwest might be showing a Rangers game, FOX Sports Ohio will be showing a Columbus Crew match at the same time.

Nonetheless, FSN has a couple of great things going for it. Number one is they do indeed have quasi-national sporting events, particularly for college sports, that are picked up by all the regional domains except those showing a local event. And these events are generally the most interesting ones after the over-the-air networks and ESPN make their selections.

Also, I have to spare a paragraph or two for the low-rent awesomeness that is FOX College Sports. FCS is split into three channels: FCS Atlantic, Central, and Pacific. It's like the local access channel of the sports world. Right now, I have it on where they are showing an Oklahoma preseason basketball game, on the OU volleyball court. Brought to you by Red Carpet Charters (the official motor coach sponsor of OU Athletics!).

But low-budget local commercials are not the best thing about FCS. They show college sports not sanctioned by NCAA, such as paintball and fishing (not that I watch these, but it's still awesome). They air coaches shows galore. Live in Maine but have a hankering to find out what the Bethune-Cookman football staff has to say this week? Here's your chance.

The bad about FOX Sports: I find their hype more annoyingly macho than ESPN's. And they employ Joe Buck.

3. FOX Soccer Channel

FSC wins the soccer channel honors over the others on content (once again). Between FSC and their secondary channel, FOX Soccer Plus, they manage to get nearly every English Premier League game over the air each week, either live or delayed. Their SportsCenter-esque news show, FOX Soccer Report, is solid. I haven't seen their horrible American soccer announcers, Christian Miles and Mark Rogondino, in a long time. And FOX Soccer Plus shows a lot of rugby union, rugby league, and Australian Rules Football; a nice touch.

4. NBC Sports Network

The list starts to slip here. NBC Sports Network and CBS Spots Network are virtually the same. They both show the third rate college games no one else wants, have their own slate of talk shows, and basically neither have any sort of discernible identity. I give the slight nod to NBC because their talk shows are slightly more interesting, they have solid coverage of Olympic Sports, and it looks like they will have a pretty decent college basketball lineup (they are showing Ohio State/Marquette and Florida/Georgetown on opening night).

5. CBS Sports Network

See NBC Sports Network.

6. GOL TV

Like FOX College Sports, GOL TV is also pretty generic, but not in the charming way FCS is. Their focus is largely South American leagues, which have low production values. The only European league they have rights to is the German Bundesliga. They show (over and over) a weekly Bundesliga newsmagazine show called "Hallo Bundesliga!" Whenever I see this in the listings I say it out loud, with much enthusiasm and a bad German accent. Their only asset, I forget his name, is this over-caffeinated Scottish announcer whose accent makes Groundkeeper Willie sound like a newscaster in Bloomington, Indiana.

Not Rated: BEINTV

That's "BeIn TV," a new soccer channel. They made waves when they won the rights to Team USA's World Cup qualifying (away games) before most people had access to the network (actually, most people still don't). I only just recently started receiving the channel and I have not watched it yet. But they do seem to have a solid lineup of European Leagues (Spain, Italy, and France) and I suspect it will be a boon to receive this channel on soccer's international matchdays.

I also didn't rate the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network because they are too niche, but I will spare them some thoughts: both are solid and if you are a diehard Big-Tenner or Pac-12 fan, you should be quite pleased with these channels. Even though it's very new, I think the Pac-12 Network is a little better, due to better announcers and better pre- and post-game shows.

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