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Podcast: Only a Game

Network: NPR

What Is It?: Produced by WBUR in Boston, it’s an hour long weekend show that mixes sports commentary with the style of National Public Radio. The show mixes well-written packages about sports news from the previous week with intelligent discussions of other sports stories.

Who’s The Host?: Veteran NPR commentator (according to an about page that needs to be updated with guests who aren’t dead) Bill Littlefield hosts the show. He’s been with NPR since 1984 and has written a handful of sports books.

What’s a Normal Episode Like?: There will be a handful of stories discussed, but not always the week’s “biggest” issues. Every episode, I learn about a story I didn’t know I wanted to hear or am told a different angle about a story that other sports shows didn’t cover.

The packages are always well-written and easy to follow along with. But there’s no pandering to get points across. If you’ve ever listened to NPR, the only difference is that the topics are all sports-related instead of news-focused.

The roundtable discussions are for a segment called “Three Stories You Should Know.” Littlefield and a pair of sportswriters reflect on issues in a much smarter way than most sports talk. No one screams or talks over anyone else. And even if you don’t agree with what Littlefield and the others have to say, you’ll never consider them stupid or unresearched based on the opinions they have.

Charlie Pierce is also a regular guest on the show, as he and Littlefield talk about sports news. Pierce always makes me chuckle during his segment. He’s thoughtful and insightful no matter what he’s talking about.

Who Is It For?: Since it’s a sports talk show on NPR, I assume that it’s made for vegans who can spell Benintendi, Olowokandi, and Gronkowski without looking it up because they relish in knowing more than you.

But seriously this is a show for people who want to dig deeper into sports stories. It’s less for people who want to see results or stats and more for those who care about how those results happened.

Who Is It Not For?: Hot take fans can move along. No one has a vendetta against a specific player and they’re not trying to light up phone lines.

It’s also not for big city fans who want a bias toward their teams. Even though the show is produced in Boston, it’s always objective and fascinating.

And if you don’t care about “lesser” or “secondary” sports, leagues, and teams, then you might as well just tune to ESPN. I’m sure SportsCenter will be on at least one of their channels.

How Many Episodes Are There?: Only a Game has been around since 1993. There’s a new episode every weekend. In between weekends, Littlefield records a short commentary. Sometimes it’s a poem, which is unusual for sports coverage. That said, it’s only a couple minutes at most and is usually – pun intended – an out of left field reaction by the host made to prove a point. It’s a small reminder that the weekend has almost arrived.

Can I Jump Right In?: As with most sports podcasts, the answer is yes. This one even has some backdating appeal because there is less of a focus on current events. Stories about Olympians from decades ago or events that happened years prior are not time sensitive, meaning you can listen to portions of old episodes and won’t know they’re not new.

What’s Not Great?: To me, NPR is like heavy metal music. It’s something I want to listen to sometimes but couldn’t handle hearing all the time. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle Only a Game if it was a daily show, but being weekly it’s a welcome change from the usual “embrace debate” nature of sports media. For better or worse, this is NPR’s spin on sports radio.

So, Should I Listen To This?: I have three questions for you. Are you tired of pontificators like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless? Do you want an alternative to what you consider a biased sports media landscape dominated by ESPN? Do you want to hear sports stories with an NPR zing that will have you finishing the show smarter than when you started?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should give Only a Game a chance. It won’t clutter up your feed with tons of episodes. At the very least, it’s a fresh podcast for your weekend, meaning it won’t interfere with the podcasts you usually listen to at work. But it’s a lot more than that.

Bottom Line – TL;DR: If you want something more from your sports talk than just hot takes and talking heads, give this show a chance. It’s different than what you’re used to, but, in this case, different might be better.

About Alex Kaufman

Alex Kaufman is a student at Denison University. He has been published on ESPN.com, profiled by SI.com, and writes for many different outlets including Awful Announcing, The AP Party, The Denisonian, and It's Pronounced Lajaway. As a broadcaster, Alex has spent time working for 91.1 FM WDUB, the Denison Sports Network, and ABC6/FOX28.