With just a few days left in 2016, that’s enough time to take one last look back at 2016 in terms of sports television with my selections for the best individuals and moments of the year. Here we go:
Best Studio Show: “College GameDay,” ESPN. The show remains, by just a smidge over “Inside the NBA” on TNT, the best pregame programming available in any sport. It gets bonus points for ambition by broadcasting on location each week. Plus, it combines consistency and known quantities with a willingness to try new things. Its hold on the top spot remains more precarious than in previous years, though, as the result of talent changes (and expect more of those as soon as next season). The “MLB Postseason Show” on Fox/Fox Sports 1 deserves note for some big moments this season, too.
Best Studio Host: Ernie Johnson, “Inside the NBA” (TNT). He stands out for his consistent, quality work. On a program full of personalities, his personality shines through and he makes room for everyone to make their points. It’s thanks in large part to him that the show can be both comfortable and fun. It’s also honest and endearing -- and that’s all because of the humble, well-prepared Johnson, who had two moments go viral late in the year with a compelling and sincere post-election opinion piece (above) and with the poem he read at the funeral for colleague Craig Sager. Johnson’s just a good guy who regularly does great work.
Best Play-by-Play Team: Mike Emrick/Eddie Olczyk, NBC/NBC Sports Network. If the NHL were as popular as the NFL, this combination would be revered. As it is, those who follow hockey and simply appreciate good sports television know they’re the best in the business. While Emrick provides context and emotion, Olczyk keeps pace with information and insights.
Best Play-by-Play Talent: Sean McDonough, ESPN/ABC. Pick a sport (college basketball, college football, NFL, baseball) and McDonough can handle the call. He’s steady, and he also brings a bit of attitude -- not afraid to critique NFL officiating for example -- that make his work enjoyable. As a result, he sounds less of a company man for the respective broadcast partners and more like and informed, unbiased pro doing his job. That’s something fans of every sport appreciate.
Best Color Commentator: John Smoltz, Fox/Fox Sports 1. Elevated to the network’s top baseball team (with Joe Buck) in 2016, Smoltz was steady during the regular season and then super in the postseason. He made point that educated and informed viewers. He shared experiences from his career. He was concise and prepared. He was the best in the business at his job last year.
Best Sideline Reporter: Doris Burke, ESPN/ABC. It is the must unforgiving job in all of sports TV. Sideline reporters rarely get much time to share information, often seem like an extravagance (Really, a full salary invested in NFL reporters who get maybe three minutes of airtime a game?) and more often come across and inane -- even when they are prepared. Still, Burke’s work consistently stands out. She’s a respected pro who usually avoids silliness and does her job. That’s appreciated and refreshing.
Best Insider/Expert: Adam Schefter, ESPN/ABC. Every network has a top information person, and some have several who get billing or credit as being well connected with people in front offices across the sport. Few rival Schefter, though. He often carries two telephones and never seems to sleep or miss a story. Sure, he’s missed some, but he’s one of the most valuable talents at ESPN for a reason. And that’s because he meets the expectations of NFL fans, who trust that he’ll break stories and if he does not he’ll find a way to get information they want.
TV Moment/Story of the Year: Death of Muhammad Ali, ESPN. Legendary boxer Muhammed Ali died June 3, 2016. It was a Saturday and news of his death was reported by ESPN at 12:28 a.m. Sunday. Fortuitously for the network, that came while “SportsCenter” was on the air and ESPN then went with commercial-free coverage until 4:14 a.m. -- nearly four consecutive hours. Ali’s death deserved that kind of coverage for many reasons, and that ESPN delivered was a testament to its spot as the all-sports network its competitors hope to become. Plus, ESPN’s work was more than talking heads. Thanks to those who were on air, those behind the scenes had time to compile footage for highlights while still others made calls to get guests on the phone and on camera from locations across the country. It was stellar work.