We’ve shown you the cheapest ways to stream (almost) every NFL game this season. Now we’re back to do the same service for college ball…with one really big caveat.
You see, the NFL’s agreements with the various broadcast and cable networks are complicated. But thanks to the fractured nature of NCAA conferences and teams, the college football broadcast world makes pro football look like a playground shoving match.
College football is a Gordian Knot of conference agreements, broadcasting rights, scheduling, and generally huge amounts of money being made. And here’s the sad truth of the matter: if you want to watch as much college football as possible, cable or satellite TV is still the best solution. It’s expensive, but cable generally includes all of the local channels, conference-specific sports channels, ESPN, and regional sports networks, even on the cheaper packages.
But let’s say that you’ve cut the cord for economic reasons, and you’d still like to watch some college football. With some careful planning, you should be able to get about 80% of the games from major conferences via one or more streaming packages.
Which Channels Do You Want?
For a huge selection of Saturday games, we first want to focus on the four national broadcast networks and ESPN. ESPN generally includes ancillary channels like ESPN2, ESPNU, etc. Also, the College Football Championship will be on ESPN.
Next, we want to cover contingencies in the “Power 5” conferences with their various conference-owned networks. So far, four out of the five have made their own cable channels:
- ACC Network*
- Big 10 Network
- PAC 12 Network
- SEC Network
*At the moment, the ACC Network operates in ad hoc mode, only broadcasting for live sports events via ESPN affiliates. It should become a “full” network in 2019. As an affiliate it may or may not be available along with ESPN, or accessible via cable login in ESPN apps.
These semi-exclusive networks aren’t as big a problem as they might initially appear. The ACC and SEC Networks are both operated in cooperation with ESPN, and the Big 10 Network is partnered with FOX Sports, so packages that include either or both of those will tend to throw in the dedicated college sports channels, too. PAC 12 coverage is more rare, since it’s an independent venture controlled by conference schools.
Unfortunately, you’ll usually have to omit single-team channels like the Longhorn Network and BYUtv, and sometimes regional sub-channels like Fox Sports Southwest or NBC Sports Network.
Local Channels May Be Limited (but You Can Just Use an Antenna)
Most of the services below include at least some of the national broadcast channels: ABC, NBC, FOX, and CBS. But the availability for specific customers depends on the local station affiliates—the smaller companies that broadcast your local news and pay to syndicate daytime TV shows. Streaming availability for these channels can be spotty, especially if you’re in a rural area. So even though the streaming service says it offers FOX, your local FOX affiliate might not be part of the program. This can be alleviated with an over-the-air antenna, which allows access to those channels for free—though of course, you’ll have to switch to your regular TV input and usually can’t access it on your mobile device or PC.
Sling TV’s “Orange” package includes ESPN, and the “Blue” package adds on locals for FOX and NBC. Getting both packages will also open up regionals for Fox Sports and NBC Sports Network. Combined, they cost $40 a month.
You can add ABC local affiliates (if it’s supported in your area) with the “Broadcast Extra” package for another $5 a month, and the “Sports Extra” package includes the SEC Network and PAC 12 Network, also for an extra $5. Sling TV also appears to offer the ACC Network, though it seems to be situational: the ACC Network channel isn’t included on its master tier list, and users report that it’s only available when live sports are being broadcast. They also say that using a Sling TV login for ESPN apps and websites grants them access to the same streaming channel option, so I’m including it in the list.
That means that for $50 a month Sling gives you four out of five of our primary channels and three out of four conference networks, plus a few sports-focused extras. Not bad, but more expensive than other options on this list for the same level of coverage.
DirecTV NOW, which is DirecTV’s streaming offering, includes ABC, FOX, NBC, and ESPN on its cheapest $35 a month tier, plus Fox Sports and the NBC Sports Network. But you’ll have to jump up to the $50 tier to add the SEC Network and ESPN’s college-focused ESPNU channel, and CBS and the other three conference channels can’t be added at any price. As such, we don’t recommend DirecTV NOW for college football.
PlayStation Vue, Sony’s PlayStation-branded streaming service—which, to be clear, does not actually require a PlayStation to use—includes ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS if your local affiliates play nice, plus ESPN, all on the cheapest $40-a-month tier. At the $45 tier, you can add the SEC Network and the Big Ten Network, which also includes ESPNU and other non-essentials like Fox Sports Southwest, FS1 and FS2, and the Longhorn Network.
There are no ACC or PAC 12 conference channels to be found on Vue, but if you root for an SEC or Big 10 team and your local channels are available through the service (or an antenna), it looks like a good deal. It hits seven out of nine of our primary goals with some good extras for $45 a month.
Hulu With Live TV
Hulu’s $40 Live TV package includes all of its standard streaming shows, plus a selection of live cable channels plus locals depending on your area. The lineup includes ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC—again, assuming your affiliates cooperate—plus ESPN and ESPNU. For conference options, it has the SEC and Big 10 Network. It also has a pretty good selection of our non-essentials, like FS1 and FS2, NBC Sports Network, and CBS Sports Network. That’s seven out of nine (the ad-hoc ACC Network is apparently not supported, though you may be able to log in via ESPN apps and watch it when it’s active) for $40.
YouTube TV is Google’s stab at cord-cutting, and it’s still fairly limited to major American markets. But where it’s active, it offers ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC (with possible holes in coverage based on local affiliates), plus the full range of ESPN and ESPNU channels. It also grants access to the SEC Network and Big Ten Network, and extras like CBS Sports, NBC Sports Network, and FS1 and FS2.
All that is available for $40, making YouTube an even match for Hulu With Live TV with the sane local and conference channels at the same price. But Hulu is available nationwide, and YouTube TV has some serious usability issues, putting it firmly behind the former.
No Clear Winner
Here’s the breakdown of channels available here. I’ve omitted the ACC Network for the 2017 college football season since it isn’t clear which packages support its ad-hoc streaming or ESPN login—that may change later on.
Obviously, in terms of price and channel availability, we’re looking at a close contest between PlayStation Vue, Hulu Plus Live TV, and YouTube TV. Common non-essential networks include Fox’s FS1 and FS2, with Hulu and YouTube having access to CBS and NBC dedicated cable sports and PlayStation Vue getting a slight edge for those in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona with Fox Sports Southwest and the Longhorn Network. If you prefer PAC-12 teams over Big 10, you might want to consider the more expensive Sling TV option…but you’ll also be missing CBS local TV. Remember that all of the local channels are conditional on affiliate cooperation, but if there are holes in your coverage, you can fill them in with an HD over-the-air antenna.
Now that the choices have been narrowed down, I recommend looking at the football schedule for the primary school you follow. I’m an Aggie fan, and all of the currently-assigned regular season Texas A&M games will be on FOX, ESPN/ESPNU, and the SEC Network, so all three are good options. Since Hulu also offers live streams of Adult Swim and TBS, and it’s $5 cheaper than the comparable PlayStation Vue, it gets my pick for my personal needs. Your hardware selection might come into it as well: here’s a quick breakdown of their availability at the time of writing.
PlayStation Vue is available on:
- PlayStation 3 and 4
- Apple TV
- Android TV and Chromecast
- Amazon Fire TV
Hulu with Live TV is available on:
- Apple TV
- Amazon Fire TV
- Roku and web support are “coming soon”
YouTube TV is available on:
- Apple TV (via AirPlay)
Weigh your options and the non-sports channels available to you… and remember that the restricted options of an all-streaming plan versus cable means you’ll probably miss at least one or two big games this year. Oh well—you can always hit a sports bar.