Football season is almost upon us. That means one thing: expensive cable or satellite TV packages. Okay, it also means beer commercials and overpriced stadium tickets and quarterbacks trying to sell you car insurance. But in terms of immediate costs, premium TV is up there.
If you’re part of the online-only cord-cutting trend, sports can be a real pain. Luckily, the last few years have seen a rapid expansion in live TV streaming services. Even so, getting access to the major NFL football partners takes a bit of research and legwork.
Our goal is to spend the least amount of money possible to get as many NFL games as we can, without signing up for conventional cable or satellite TV, signing a contract, or having to buy or rent specific hardware. For the sake of this comparison, we’re also ignoring over-the-air HD broadcasts that can be watched free with an antenna—though that’s an excellent way to watch football, too. We want to be able to stream all or nearly all NFL games, to desktop browsers, mobile devices, and streaming set-top boxes like Roku, for the absolute cheapest possible amount of money.
Which TV Networks Do You Need?
In the United States, NFL football games are broadcast every Sunday on over-the-air networks, every Monday night on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and every Thursday on NFL Network (cable), CBS (broadcast), or NBC (broadcast). Some 2017 games are also available to stream through Amazon.com. There are also some intermittent games on other days of the week, but generally, you’ll be able to tune in almost all Sunday and on Monday and Thursday nights to find a game.
To get the widest possible selection, we want the following channels accessible for streaming:
- NFL Network
Note that on Sundays, when many football games overlap, you may be limited to the game chosen for your specific region by your local network affiliate. Blackout games for local teams are also possibilities if the stadium doesn’t sell enough seats, but those are unlikely. It seems probable that the NFL will suspend blackouts entirely for 2017, as it has for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, though that has not been confirmed at the time of writing.
The CBS Problem
In the current streaming world, CBS is like that kid in kindergarten who refuses to play with others and throws a screaming temper tantrum when the teacher tells him to share. While ABC, NBC, and FOX are all available on at least some collective streaming services, CBS is not, forcing customers to pay for its stand-alone CBS All Access service or sign up with a partner like Hulu. Even then, it’s only available in select cities. So it’s more or less impossible to get all six of the broadcast and streaming networks we listed above in a single paid streaming package.
That means we’re going to have to combine CBS All Access with some of the other streaming TV services in order to get access to everything. The good news is, since none of these services require a contract or extra hardware, you can drop CBS All Access like a bad habit once the football season is over.
Local Channels May Be Limited
All of the services we listed above offer streaming broadcast channels, but they’re conditional based on the local affiliate partners for the networks. So if ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC doesn’t have a partner station in your area (or if that station doesn’t offer a digital stream), then it won’t be available even if your streaming TV service is technically partnered with the national network.
These holes in coverage can get extremely frustrating. Luckily, all of the services offer free trial periods, so be sure to check out your localized lineup during the first few days of service. If one or more of your local stations isn’t appearing, try another service.
The basic Sling TV “Orange” tier doesn’t include broadcast networks, so we need to step up to the $25 a month “Blue” package. That includes FOX, NBC, ESPN, and NFL Network—meeting over half of our requirements.
To get ABC, we’ll have to add the $5 “Broadcast Extra” fee on top of it, which unfortunately is only available in a few metro areas. Right now those include Chicago, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, and San Francisco. If you live anywhere else in the US, you’ll be missing a considerable chunk of Sunday games if you choose Sling TV.
CBS isn’t available anywhere on Sling TV, so to get up to our six-channel target, you’ll have to add CBS All Access as a separate service for $5.99 a month. That gives you everything—assuming you’re in one of the metro areas mentioned above—for a total of $36 a month.
DirecTV’s appeal to streamers costs $35 for the basic package, and its “60+ channels” include ABC, ESPN, FOX, and NBC. But it doesn’t offer CBS or NFL Network at any price, so DirecTV is really out of consideration based on price, even if we’re combining it with CBS All Access.
Sony’s oddly PlayStation-branded Vue service offers ESPN and NFL Network on its $45 tier, but its local support for broadcast networks is extremely patchy, especially for ABC and CBS (though some markets get on-demand options for missing channels). Between the poor coverage for broadcast and the higher price, Vue is out of contention, though it might be worth considering if you can get those channels over-the-air.
Hulu With Live TV
Hulu’s standard premium streaming package offers a bunch of shows and movies, but no live streams, which is definitely what you want for sports. The Hulu with Live TV service, officially in beta right now, adds a bunch of streaming broadcast and cable channels for $40 a month (that price includes basic Hulu streaming access).
The $40 package includes ABC, CBS (no All Access required), FOX, and NBC—all four broadcast NFL partners with no add-ons. It also has ESPN, but unfortunately omits NFL Network. With Thursday Night Football spread out across three network partners—some of which overlap—that means you’ll miss seven games on the 2017 regular schedule.
Even without NFL Network, Hulu with Live TV appears to be the most NFL football you can get through a single service. And at $40—only $4 more than the Sling TV + CBS All Access combo—it’s worth considering. Unlike the other options on this list, Hulu’s live streaming currently has no browser access.
Like Hulu, YouTube TV also offers ABC, CBS (no All Access required), Fox, NBC, and ESPN, but not NFL Network, meaning fans would miss those same seven regular season games. And at $35 a month, it is cheaper than Hulu.
Unfortunately, YouTube TV is still in its infancy, and right now it’s only available in a handful of major metro markets—and, frankly, isn’t that good anyway. Hopefully it will be expanded in the future.
Summing It All Up
We can distill all of this information into the following advice.
The Cheapest Way To Get Everything: Sling TV + CBS All Access
With all six NFL partner channels covered for only $36 a month, combining Sling TV and CBS All Access should give you the option of watching every major NFL game this season. You’ll have to switch between apps on your phone, desktop, or streaming box frequently. Both services offer online viewing and apps for iOS, Android, and all major streaming devices.
The Cheapest Single-Service Option: YouTube TV
With all four broadcast networks and ESPN, YouTube TV offers everything except seven exclusive NFL All Access Thursday Night Football games for just $35 a month. Unfortunately, availability is limited to very specific metro areas at the moment. App support is limited to Android and iOS devices, Chromecast/Android TV, and Apple TV via Airplay.
The Cheapest Single-Service Option with Wide Availability: Hulu with Live TV
Hulu’s streaming plus live TV service offers all four broadcast networks plus ESPN, leaving only the seven cable-exclusive Thursday Night Football games inaccessible. At $40 a month, it’s more expensive than YouTube TV, but there’s no location-based limitation. As a bonus, it also includes all of Hulu’s standard streaming content. Hulu has apps for all major platforms.
Mobile Options are Limited
Starting in January 2018 (and in time for at least some of the 2017 season’s playoff games and the Super Bowl), Verizon is expanding its mobile streaming agreement. Previously only Verizon customers could watch NFL games on their phones, which was eventually turned into a free feature. Now any smartphone user in the US can view all in-market games on their phone for free, regardless of their mobile service provider, and watch on Verizon-owned apps like Yahoo Sports and go90, as well as the original NFL Mobile app.
Unfortunately, this deal is only for mobile access. This doesn’t give you access to those NFL games on your PC or tablet (even if your tablet can use the same apps as your phone). And licensing restrictions will keep you from sending the video from your phone to your television using tools like a Chromecast or Apple’s AirPlay. So you can watch all the NFL football you want for free, so long as you don’t watch it on anything bigger than a six-inch screen.
Verizon’s deal with the NFL also means it’s the exclusive provider of mobile games, so even if you pay for one of the services listed above, you may be blocked from watching your local channels or ESPN when a game is on, forcing you to use a Verizon-approved app instead. Tools that re-broadcast cable or over-the-air signals, like HDHomeRun, aren’t affected.