As a major consumer of sports media, I’ve developed refined tastes preferences for a variety of different forms of sports media, from magazines to newspapers to books to websites to talk shows to broadcasts and everything in between. Each one can come with a different role or purpose, but regardless of its role a great producer of sports media must thrive at communicating, reporting and storytelling. I’ve decided to differentiate the bark from the bite compile rankings for several different categories under the umbrella of sports media, the people and programs that are the best at what they do.
Former Players- Recent players who provide an insightful perspective on the game they played
- Tony Romo, FOX Sports- One of my favorite players from his playing days, Romo has transitioned seamlessly into the NFL broadcasting booth and is renowned for his trademark pre-play predictions and explanations. He could be changing the relationship between players and the media.
- Ryan Clark, ESPN- The former Steelers safety provides brilliant commentary on ESPN’s various football shows. His personality is inviting, and he is adept at drawing back from his playing days to explain the perspective of players and various football concepts.
- Shannon Sharpe, FOX Sports– Sharpe makes up a must-watch tandem with Skip Bayless, and while he comments on a variety of sports, it is his NFL analysis that is truly special. Sharpe tackles big issues both on the field and in society in nuanced ways and rarely backs down from a fight.
- Marcellus Wiley, FOX Sports- The title of Wiley’s recent autobiography, Never Shut Up, says everything you need to know about his sports talk style. He doesn’t sacrifice substance, either, and takes on some of the biggest names in sports talk and comes out on top.
- David Ross, ESPN– Ross retired from his previous position as Jon Lester’s favorite catcher and emerged as an excellent contributor to ESPN’s baseball coverage. Ross is an enjoyable personality who adds insight to every broadcast.
Honorable Mention: Nate Burleson, NFL Network- Burleson is great as a member of NFL Network’s Good Morning Football and makes viewers feel like an insider in the NFL culture.
Sports Talk Personalities- These talk show hosts are master rhetoricians that know how to win a debate.
- Rich Eisen, NFL Network- The former Sportscenter anchor has a calm, welcoming demeanor that is the sports equivalent to Mr. Rogers. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to take the unpopular position and back it up, and his show features a wealth of big name guests. Bonus points for his yearly attempt of the 40-yard dash in a suit.
- Dan Patrick, NBC Sports- Another former Sportscenter anchor, Patrick is adept at interviewing the biggest names in sports and gives authority to any position he takes with sound reasoning. Bonus points here for his role as the host of Sports Jeopardy.
- Will Cain, ESPN- In my mind, Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman of ESPN’s First Take are massively overrated due to their capricious sports takes and their tendencies to speak loudly to sound like they are winning their debate. Frequent guest and resident Cowboys fan Will Cain is the antidote. Sometimes he can come off as a homer, but he is one of the best at taking a controversial issue such as the anthem protests and argue an unpopular but fair point so that it makes sense.
- Colin Cowherd, Fox Sports- He can be showy and sarcastic at times, but Colin Cowherd is one of the best at explaining the business of sports and keeping games and major storylines in perspective. Unlike many other sports talk hosts, he brings in the topic of gambling often and incorporates that interesting perspective into his commentary. He has also interviewed guests from Donald Trump to Ray Lewis to LaVar Ball, and he doesn’t back down.
- Tim Kurkjian, ESPN- Kurkjian loves the game of baseball, and it is evident in his work. Kurkjian enjoys explaining the wrinkles and intricacies of the game and never loses his trademark enthusiasm and charisma. He would be the biggest loss of ESPN’s baseball coverage if he left.
HM: Louis Riddick, ESPN- Technically Riddick played as an NFL safety in the 1990s, but Riddick’s tenure as a director of pro personnel gives him a unique perspective into the events of the NFL and adds a dimension to ESPN’s coverage.
Shows- Programs that uniquely and thoroughly discuss major topics in the major sports.
- The Dan Patrick Show, NBC Sports- With an unrivaled quantity of great guest appearances, a cast of producers who lend their own personalities to the show, a collegial atmosphere, and fun features such as coming up with player names that match holidays (Nerlens “The First” Noel), the Dan Patrick Show is a must-watch on YouTube.
- The Herd with Colin Cowherd, FOX Sports– Cowherd makes bold predictions and statements but also is so strong rhetorically that he often sways my opinions on sports topics.
- The Jump, ESPN- Churchill alumnus Rachel Nichols is the host of TV’s best NBA show, giving fans a humorous and fun spin on NBA news. Nichols is adept at incorporating the voices of the NBA players who join the set as well as giving her own insightful commentary into the league’s news and social issues.
- Good Morning Football, NFL Network- GMF is the most playful and entertaining NFL show on TV, balancing outlandish predictions with insightful commentary. The chemistry between the four hosts is unmatched.
- Always Late with Katie Nolan, ESPN- There’s sports talk, and then there’s Katie Nolan and her sports humor show. Nolan goes over the top in her witty takes on popular sports topics and lends an uncommon energy to the sports talk genre.
HM: Undisputed with Skip and Shannon- I only included this because on days after the Cowboys win, Skip Bayless boasting about the Boys is must-see TV. Leave rational thinking at the door.
Writers- The best at bringing the game to life and conveying emotion through their work.
- Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated- The best sportswriter of his generation is technically retired from SI, but his ability to bring emotion and perspective into sports stories is so amazing that it transcends the realm of sports.
- Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated– Ask Verducci to cover something as momentous as the Cubs breaking a 108-year World Series drought, and he will give a take that both captures and enhances his topic.
- Peter King, NBC Sports- King understands the NFL and revolutionized sports commentary with his weekly column that talked about topics even outside of the game. He is the closest thing to an authority on the NFL.
- Bill Barnwell, ESPN- Each post Bill Barnwell publishes about the X’s and O’s of the most popular game in America boosts my football IQ by a couple points, though some inevitably goes over my head.
- John Feinstein, Washington Post- I’ve grown up reading Feinstein’s long line of fiction and journalistic books as well as his college basketball columns and few writers are able to extrapolate a human story from nearly any sporting event and make you care as well as Feinstein. Bonus points because I met him.
HM: Bill Simmons, The Ringer– His work is harder to find now that he is working on his new site the Ringer, but any Simmons commentary on the NBA is rich and worth the read.
Websites/Publications- The first sources I go to for in-depth analysis on the news in the sporting world.
- Sports Illustrated– I grew up reading each SI Kids the second it arrived at my house, and somehow I’ve found even more satisfaction reading the filling and interesting content each Sports Illustrated issue brings.
- The Ringer– I probably account for half this website’s traffic now that I discovered its treasure trove for intellectual sports, movie, and culture commentary.
- ESPN.com- ESPN’s website is the go-to site for every sports score, standing, and statistic, plus has the occasional interesting longform read.
- Bleacher Report– Its signature power rankings and slideshows are rarely substantial, but its columns are among the best in the business. Especially Mike Tanier’s always humorous Monday Morning Digest during football season.
- Sportslogos.net- This website fills a niche that I especially find important to sports, and Chris Creamer’s reporting on the newest in uniform or logo news makes this a site I check multiple times a week.
HM: USA Today- Each copy is usually a good read when I’m on vacation.
Books- Titles that optimize the written format to tell an engaging story with universal relevance.
- Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger- The tale of the Permian Panthers has also found its way into the TV show and movie formats, but the book is the best. It tackles the idea of a football-obsessed Texas town and creates a real and rich portrait of the meaning sports can bring to a community.
- The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown- Brown’s reporting on the University of Washington’s Olympic rowing team contains some of the most vivid and artistic depictions of sporting events that could be in a sports book.
- Paper Lion by George Plimpton- The concept is gold – a sportswriter tries out for the Detroit Lions and makes it into preseason action. The writing is even better.
- The Blind Side by Michael Lewis- The movie is one of my all-time favorites, but the book that inspired it is definitely worth the read, too.
- A Civil War: A Year Inside College Football’s Purest Rivalry by John Feinstein- Feinstein’s sports titles are easy to lump together, but I’d choose this as his best for its stellar storytelling about one of the most interesting and unique parts of college sports- rivalries between military academies.
HM: Throwback by Jason Kendall- After he was immortalized as a Backyard Baseball character, the longtime Pirates catcher wrote a book about the intricacies of baseball. His ideas changed the way I see the game and is a must-read for anyone who watches the occasional baseball game.
30 for 30 Episodes- The best mini-documentaries from the best sports show on TV.
- The U (Seasons 1 and 2)- These two episodes have flavor and style, perfectly encapsulating the culture of the most flamboyant sports teams in history, the Miami Hurricanes’ football squads.
- Bad Boys (Season 2)- In between Bird’s Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls, the hard-nosed Pistons ruled the NBA and brought along with them an us vs. the world mentality.
- The Last Days of Knight (Season 3)- Written from the perspective of the sportswriter who broke the story of Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight’s poor treatment of his players, this documentary tells the story of Knight’s fall well but is spectacular for its twists and incorporation of the human element of the debacle.
- This Was the XFL (Season 3)- The XFL’s one season of existence was a spectacular failure, and this retelling of the short-lived league’s story captures all of its quirks and overall tone.
- This Magic Moment (Season 3)- Really, this is the only evidence I have that the Magic were once a viable and enjoyable NBA franchise, though the end is not quite a happy ending for Orlando.
HM: The Four Falls of Buffalo (Season 3)- Four straight Super Bowls, four straight losses. The Buffalo Bills of the 1990s deserved the spotlight for once and got it here.
At its best, sports media tells stories and enhances the experience of viewing sports. The best give unique perspectives of all of the parties involved and are more about substance than show. Great sports media is also enjoyable to watch and is truly special when the love of the game is evident. Sports media should give its consumer something new and interesting on each page, click, or view.