3 Ways to Watch NFL Games Without Paying for Cable
I cut the cord about a year and a half ago, and most of the time I don't miss my cable box. I use a borrowed HBO Go password to watch "Game of Thrones," use Hulu to keep up with network TV shows, and get the rest of my entertainment from Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon Prime (AMZN). But trying to watch live sports without cable is brutal, and every NFL and NHL season finds me running through various methods before finally giving up and heading to a bar.
With that said, the determined sports fan can still generally find ways to catch the game. Here are the pros and cons of each approach.
Get an Antenna
In the past, we've recommended Aereo as an alternative to the antenna. But the company effectively ceased operations after the Supreme Court rejected its business model, so now we're left with antennas.
And that's not a bad solution. Today's antennas are a far cry from the old rabbit ears, receiving crisp HD signals on compact hardware. And most games are on network television –- every Sunday afternoon game is on CBS (CBS) or Fox (FOXA), and half the Thursday night games are likewise on CBS. So if you just want to watch your local team, you'll be able to watch most of their games on the antenna.
But the rest of the Thursday night games are still on the premium cable-only NFL Network, while "Monday Night Football" moved from ABC to ESPN in 2006. Plus, antennas aren't perfect: The signal isn't 100 percent consistent, leaving you prone to getting static on a crucial third-down play. And you have no way of recording or pausing games as you would with a DVR.
Bottom line: For under $60, it's a solid solution -– but an inconsistent and incomplete one.
Borrow a Password and Watch Online
As with "Game of Thrones," this one requires you to have friends or family willing to share their cable account. For "Monday Night Football" games on ESPN and "Sunday Night Football" games on NBC, you can watch on the respective channels' websites -- but only if you have a login for a cable account. Fox will stream 101 NFL games on its website, but it too will require cable authentication. (As far as we can tell, CBS won't be consistently streaming its games online.)
This is great for people content to watch on their laptops or sneak a peak on their iPad at church, but it can be a bit of a pain if you want to watch it on your actual television. Some set-top boxes or game console -- Roku and Xbox, to name two -- have ESPN apps, but otherwise you're going to have to find a way to get the signal from your computer to your television. A cheap-but-unwieldy solution is to string an HDMI cable (under $10) from your laptop; a better option would be to beam it wirelessly using a Chromecast ($35), which has the added benefit of working with laptops that don't have an HDMI port.
Bottom line: If you have access to a cable login and have a reliable internet connection and a good way to get the signal to your TV, this is a solid option for watching many in-network and national games.
NFL Sunday Ticket (Without the Dish!)
The preceding approaches share a common downside: If you live outside your favorite team's geographical area, you're not going to be able to catch their games on a consistent basis.
There's only one legal way to see every NFL game, and that's with NFL Sunday Ticket through DirecTV (DTV). Unfortunately, it's pricey: Not only do you need to subscribe to DirecTV, you'll also need to pay an additional $240 or $320 to get the football package (depending on which package you get). As with cable, though, you can stream those games online if you can convince someone with DirecTV and the Sunday Ticket package to share their password.
But this season there's another option that requires neither satellite dishes nor friends. If you live somewhere that can't get DirecTV -- for instance, an apartment building -- you can buy Sunday Ticket streaming as a stand-alone package they're calling nflsundayticket.tv. Prices start at $200 for the season, but as Deadspin notes, the pricing structure is "a big needless pile of stupid." The $200 option lets you access the games on your computer or mobile device, while if you want to watch it on TV through your PlayStation or Xbox console, you'll have to buy the $240 package. But here's the stupid part: that $240 package limits you to the console. If you want the option to watch it on any of your devices, you'll need the $330 plan, which also includes NFL Red Zone.
The $200 option provides a bit more flexibility than the console option, though in my experience the streaming quality tends to be better on console apps. Either way, keep in mind that you can only stream one game at a time, so don't think you can share your password with friends or turn your living room into a multi-screen, home sports bar. Also keep in mind that it's called Sunday Ticket for a reason -– you only get the Sunday afternoon games, so you'll have to find another way to watch Thursday, Monday and Sunday night games. Finally, note that local games are blacked out: if it's available locally on CBS or Fox, you can't stream it through the app.
Bottom line: You can't watch local games, the pricing structure is crazy, and it's only available in places where you can't mount a satellite dish. But if you want to watch out-of-market games, you can finally do it without a DirectTV subscription.
Where Are You Watching?
So what's the best option for watching the games? If you mainly want to watch your local team, an antenna is probably the way to go; on those occasions when you want to watch a non-network game, you can probably find a friend with a cable subscription willing to share their password.
If you want to watch out-of-network games, your task is a lot harder: If you qualify for the NFL Sunday Ticket streaming package (and are willing to pay for it), you'll probably have to use some combination of that, an antenna and a borrowed cable password to watch every game you want to see.
Or you could just go to a bar. They have beer there.
Matt Brownell covers retail and personal finance for DailyFinance. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.