Soccer's in the air

DAVE CAMERON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:49 AM ET

It's back.

With its fans starving for fresh competition, the "greatest sport on the planet" is set to start another season of action.

Oh, yeah, The NHL will be back in action, too.

But who cares right now? We've got some soccer to watch!

The English Premier League began in earnest yesterday. League action has already started in France and Germany. So has Champions League qualifying. The Italian and Spanish leagues are set to follow right away. Not to mention, this winter will also feature international games setting the stage for that little shindig in 2006 they call the World Cup.

The TV quotient for the beautiful game has risen in recent years like a David Beckham penalty kick over the crossbar, and now we're in for an additional bounty as The Score (Cable 80) is adding Sunday broadcasts (starting today with Chelsea vs. Wigan, 9 a.m., next Sunday, Chelsea vs. Arsenal) to Sportsnet's Saturday EPL lineup. Add in TSN's Champions League coverage, Italian Serie A on Telelatino (Cable 88), plus various satellite feeds shown at pubs, and we're talking soccer nirvana.

In fact, Canadian viewers have had access to five English Premier League games this weekend - one more than British viewers!

Fox turned its Canadian Sports World channel into an all-soccer station last year. Now, believe it or not, is set to face competition in the all-soccer, all-the-time realm. CRTC has approved GolTV as a pay digital "Category 2 Specialty Programming," set to launch Oct. 15.

The numbers must make sense for broadcasters. Otherwise they wouldn't be taking it to a next level of niche programming, even in this specialty channel world.

Sportsnet has dropped its weekly SoccerCentral show with Gerry Dobson and former national team 'keeper Craig Forrest, but the network will introduce a soccer panel into its evening sportscasts.

Also, Sportsnet says they will be showing games without commercials during the action after registering a 25% spike in ratings when they did it last season.

TSN begins its Champions League coverage on Sept. 13.

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Way down on Cable 80, the Score network has long been a proponent of the game, with James Sharman's Sportsworld using it as its main focus, convening a panel on Mondays and Fridays (3:30 p.m.) featuring the host with former national teamers Paul James and Brian Budd. They cover soccer both nationally and internationally. And, in Budd's case, sometimes outer space!

With the Sunday broadcasts, the panel will be convene for a pre-game show at 8:30 a.m.

"Brian Budd on Sunday morning!" Sharman said. "God help us all!!!!"

"It's great fun. It's basically my hobby," said Budd, a Labatt rep in southern Ontario.

"It just takes it to one more level for us. Let's expand a little. We're going to try and get out on the street a little bit, too. Maybe get to some of the supporters' clubs.

"That's just made-to-order for me when I can get in amongst a crowd and have some fun."

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On the local media front, Soccer Steve can now say he has the longest-running soccer show ever in Canada. (Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Team 1260.)

Steve pushes local and national soccer on Ultimate Soccer, but the EPL always ends up a prominent topic with callers Steve and co-host Ian Wolfe.

"You've got Ian, who comes in from the Arsenal angle," said Steve. "Me from the (Manchester) United angle, and our producer Drew Dolby who's a Chelsea fan.

"So it's created a beautiful three-way argument. Which is all healthy and good."


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