The rise of online video streaming has made it easier than ever to watch sports. But with so many options available, how can you know that you're getting the best deal? The only thing worse than not being able to watch a big game is finding out you're paying too much to watch it.
In addition, mobile apps are incorporating more and more content beyond just the live game broadcast, from fantasy sports tracking to in-depth in-game analytics.
Here's a guide to navigating the streaming world for the 2015 football season, for both the NFL and college football.
Considerations for those sticking with cable
If you're not planning to go beyond basic cable, which will include the major broadcast TV networks as well as ESPN, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First is that the NFL continues to insist on restricting broadcast for select games to the NFL Network, which is not included in most basic cable packages. This season, Thursday night games in weeks 9 through 11, as well as Thursday and Saturday games in weeks 14 through 16, will only be available on NFL Network.
This is a bit frustrating for the thrifty fan, because that handful of games isn't necessarily worth a full-season subscription to NFL Network, especially for those who only want to watch their favorite team's games.
However, those late-season games could have some serious playoff implications, even for teams that aren't playing. So, to do the math to determine whether to subscribe for your cable provider's sports package, you'll have to estimate what you'd spend on food and beverages while watching these games at a sports bar.
Personally, if you only want to watch select NFL Network games, my best advice is to convince your closest friend with the nicest TV to subscribe to NFL Network.
For college football fans looking to follow just their favorite teams, there is a chance that their conference has its own network. Bleacher Report has a great breakdown of the major college football conferences with their own TV networks (scroll down for the chart), as well as the cable providers that offer each one.
NFL Sunday Ticket goes online-only, but with a catch
One of the more popular ways to watch football is customized cable broadcasts like the NFL's NFL RedZone, DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, and ESPN Goal Line for college football. Recognizing that very little of a football broadcast shows actual football, these broadcasts automatically switch to games at the most exciting moments, like a trip to the red zone or a big play in the final seconds of a half or game.
The big news in this space is that DirecTV recently rolled out NFL Sunday Ticket as an online-only tool. That means you can subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket and watch it over the internet without subscribing to DirecTV.
This deal isn't as good as it sounds, though. NFL Sunday Ticket Online is only available to those who live in regions that DirecTV does not serve with satellite TV, so you have to enter your address at the site to find out if you can get the online-only service. Otherwise, the company will just want you to sign up for its satellite TV service.
If you do qualify for Sunday Ticket Online, be prepared to pay. The online-only service has a strange "escalating fee" based on the device the customer users: $199 per season for viewing on a mobile device or PC, $259 per season for viewing on a game console or streaming device like Roku or Chromecast, and $359 per month if you want to use a combination of both (payments are made in smaller installments over a four-month period). By comparison, TV subscribers can get NFL Sunday Ticket broadcast on their TV for just over $250 per season, made in $20 monthly payments year-round (this requires a 24-month agreement).
The online-only NFL Sunday Ticket deal seems like it’s only really worth it for college students, who can get the service for $99 per season.
NFL RedZone, ESPN Goal Line for college football action
NFL RedZone and ESPN Goal Line are available through most cable providers, and provide the "whip-around" coverage that shows the best moments from every NFL and college football game every week. They aren't too expensive to add, either. Here are the offerings from the major cable providers:
- Comcast offers its full Xfinity Sports entertainment package, which includes both NFL RedZone and ESPN Goal Line (as well as a handful of other sports TV networks) for a six-month promotional price of $4.95, which later increases to as much as $9.95 per month (neither price counts taxes or fees).
- Verizon FiOS offers its Sports Pass for a slightly higher fee, at $11.99 per month, but includes both NFL RedZone and ESPN Goal Line along with a longer list of additional sports channels, including NFL Network, Fox College Sports, and Longhorn Network (a network dedicated to University of Texas sports).
- Time Warner Cable offers NFL RedZone as part of its Sports Pass, which also includes Pac 12 Network and two other sports networks, for $8.99 per month.
How to stream football games
The NFL recently launched a Game Pass, a service that allows users to stream any NFL game for $100 per year. There is a catch, though – regular-season games will not be streamed live (pre-season games will be streamed live, while the app only offers audio play-by-play for postseason games). The Sunday day games (meaning those that start between 9:30 am and 4:00 pm eastern) won't be available on Game Pass until all the 4:00 pm games have finished. The Sunday night, Monday night, and Thursday night games will be available to stream after they've finished.
Another caveat is that Game Pass is currently limited to PCs; the NFL says compatibility for mobile devices, gaming consoles, and TV streaming devices is coming soon, however.
Game Pass seems like a good, reasonably priced option for fans who don't live near their favorite team and wouldn't be able to watch them otherwise. They'd have to be OK with watching a game after it's already over, however. For what it's worth, the NFL did incorporate a "no spoilers" feature that hides scores for all games while using Game Pass.
Many prospective cord cutters are put off by the idea of going without ESPN, but as Venture Beat's Brenda Barron explained last year, some internet subscribers can access WatchESPN.com, which streams Monday Night Football and some college football games, without a cable TV subscription. Barron reported accessing WatchESPN.com on her Time Warner-provided home internet without even having to enter any of her account information, and she also claims Comcast, Cox, and AT&T U-Verse broadband customers can stream WatchESPN without subscribing to cable.
Unfortunately, WatchESPN.com isn't available to customers of other ISPs, according to the article.
Barron also pointed out that cord cutters might be more inclined to subscribe to DirecTV's online-only NFL Sunday Ticket, as the money they save on a cable subscription can go toward the service's unusually high fees.
One issue to keep in mind with NFL Sunday Ticket – a Reddit user recently complained that the online-only service doesn't offer an option to change video quality, and that the service automatically tries to stream at the highest video quality. This could be an issue for those who only have access to limited-bandwidth broadband, where trying to stream high-quality video will backfire. This was just one Reddit user's claim, however, and it's unclear if DirecTV has integrated the ability to adjust video quality for this season.
For the NFL at least, these kinds of services may soon be irrelevant. The league is experimenting with live streaming for the first time this season, partnering with Yahoo to broadcast the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills, which will be held in London and broadcast in the U.S. on October 25 at 9:30 am eastern time. If the live stream goes well, it could lead the NFL to embrace live video streaming of all its games.
And while ESPN has dipped its toes into live streaming of college football games, with last year's college football national championship simulcast on WatchESPN.com, there currently aren't many secure options for streaming college football games, outside of the online options available to those who subscribe to college football networks with their cable provider.
Xbox One NFL app embraces wearable technology
Microsoft's partnership with the NFL, which proved futile in its attempt to promote the Surface tablet last season, has brought about one of the more exciting tools of the 2015 season: the NFL app for Xbox One.
Now in its third year, after a much-maligned mid-season roll out in 2013, the Xbox app provides a constant scoreboard and fantasy tracker which users can snap to one side of the screen. And this year, it's incorporating a breakthrough new feature called "Next Gen Stats."
Las year, the NFL began attaching RFID chips to players' equipment. The Xbox One app will use the data generated by those stats to allow users to get in-depth stats, such as players' running speeds, and watch virtual replays showing each players' full movement across the field during the play. It's kind of a blend of wearable technology and the Internet of Things, but for football fans.
The Verge has a pretty good breakdown of the app, as well as video of the Next Gen Stats feature in action. It doesn't seem like it will be very useful to the casual fan, but it could become a great way for youth players and coaches to break down how the pros design and execute their plays.