- Looking to cut the cord on cable but unsure which online streaming service will satisfy your needs as a sports fan? We've got you covered.
The best place to watch sports is online. As for the best way to watch sports online? That’s more complicated.
DIRECTV NOW, fuboTV, PlayStation Vue, Sling TV and YouTube TV ads are now seemingly appearing as often as car and beer spots, from March Madness to the start of the college football season. Each company offers a similar service: a bunch of channels for a set monthly price (sometimes with different tiers or add-ons available too). Plus, each has identified sports fans as a key customer base, with streaming finally a largely reliable option and many live games still only available with a cable subscription.
Why go online? Well, signing up—and canceling—is easy, game notifications and recordings are straightforward, and streams travel with you. Most significantly, the subscription is often cheaper than the traditional, cable-from-the-wall alternative. As a result, virtual multichannel video programming distributors (or vMVPDs, though I will avoid that acronym at all costs) are slated to octuple in revenue while attracting 77 million users by 2023.
But each service is slightly different. There are different channels offered at different prices with different interfaces and technological underpinnings that work differently on different devices. Just, different. And the truth is, there is no single best option, especially for sports fans. It’s going to come down to what you need and what you prioritize. Also, given that the absence of a single channel like MSG, beIN or MLB Network could disqualify an offering for a particular supporter, you’re going to need to dig into the fine print before settling on a service. (A tip from someone who has traveled that road: FOMOPOP can help.)
Still, for folks looking to watch football, two options stand out. Consider these SI Media’s preseason award picks… (And if you want individual advice, I’ll try my hardest on Twitter.)
Best Experience: YouTube TV
Unsurprisingly, the company that streams over one billion hours of video each day has figured out the best way to stream television as well. YouTube TV only comes in one flavor: $40/month for a package of channels that includes ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC in most markets, a slew of ESPN and FOX Sports channels, CBS Sports Network, the Big Ten and SEC Networks and so on.
Though it’s not significantly faster than the competition, broadcasts are stable, navigation is simple and search is good. It’s not Google level—”CBS NFL” doesn’t bring up the network’s pregame show, The NFL Today—but it’s usually better than the others. The standout feature here is DVR—it’s criminally easy to add a game or team “to your library,” allowing you to access that content from any device with an internet connection, and there’s no storage limit. Recordings are saved for nine months.
Netflix users will find the app layout familiar, with a series of rows that you can scroll across. On the home page, the first row offers “top picks for you.” The tiles in that row will show a live preview of the channel, too, so you don’t have to click and load to find out the show is in commercial. YouTube TV also recently rolled out in-game stats and highlights for the NFL. “We created a service with the sports fan at the heart,” a company spokesman said. “We’re sports fans ourselves and so we’re constantly building new features and experiences.”
As for downsides, the most obvious one is availability. YouTube TV is currently offered in roughly 100 of the country’s largest metro areas, but it’s still not everywhere. It’s also not compatible with Amazon’s Fire devices or Apple’s Safari browser. Lastly, you’ll be sacrificing some popular channels, including NFL Network. So if that’s a must—and with seven exclusive regular season games, starting Thursday, it might be—you’ll have to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, elsewhere means using an app that feels a little more like work.
Best Value: Sling TV Orange + Blue with Sports Extra
Want ESPN, NFL Network and NFL RedZone? This is the cheapest way to get them, at $50/month. The next cheapest option is PlayStation Vue’s Core + Sports Pack, which is $60/month. Sling also has a few other sports channels that are hard to find elsewhere, including beIN, the PAC-12 network and the NHL Network.
Sling TV is the oldest of these offerings. Its design is unvarnished (one could say barebones), and you’ll have to pay extra to access a DVR. FOMOPOP measured Sling’s average delay as 30 seconds behind YouTube TV’s and found that it takes over three times as long to switch channels (5.5 seconds vs. 1.5). Don’t sign up expecting the most access to 60 fps streams. In fact, if you know what that means, you might be happier elsewhere. NBC streams are also limited to nine NFL markets, so there’s a good chance you’ll have to find Sunday Night Football another way. Sling will recommend you get “an over-the-air (OTA) HDTV antenna.”
All that said, it’s still the most popular service for a reason. The tech is fine—I spent six straight hours watching NFL RedZone without issues Sunday (don’t judge)—and the price is great.
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
For a lot of people, Vue is the best option available. It has several sports channels that Sling lacks, like MLB Network and the Big Ten Network, while also boasting NFL Network and RedZone (unlike YouTube TV), though getting all those will cost you $60/month (plans start at $45/month). It works as well as any other service across almost every platform and offers a three-screens-at-once experience on the PlayStation (otherwise you won’t miss out on anything by not owning the gaming system).
Vue comes with an unlimited, 28-day DVR. And if you’re buying for a big family, its five simultaneous streams will come in handy. Sling allows a max of four and YouTube sets the cap at three, though you can share an account with up to five “family members." A lot of things to consider, I know. This last one will matter to—at most—11 people, but they’ll find it critically important, so: Vue emphasizes the ability to watch your local regional sports network (like Fox Sports South or NBC Chicago etc.) even when you’re traveling outside of the traditional broadcast footprint. Altogether, Vue’s total package is one of the best available, if not a particularly flashy one.
Hulu with Live TV
Hulu would win the award for most creative approach. While the other apps recreate a TV guide one way or another, Hulu instead has merged live content into its large on-demand library. Whereas YouTube TV is a separate app from YouTube, here there is just one. For someone already in the Hulu ecosystem, that’s a win. It’s also a financial benefit. If you’re already paying $8/month or more for Hulu, the additional $32 for live TV makes it cheaper than all but the slimmest Sling packages. You might as well see if Hulu with Live TV will meet your needs before considering alternatives.
For would-be new-lus though, the decision is tougher. Hulu does offer the four major broadcast networks in a majority of locations and has a solid lineup of regional sports networks (covering 23 NBA teams’ stations, for instance), with good tech and easy-to-use personalization options. For example, users could prioritize certain events during the Winter Olympics. Such is the benefit of largely eschewing an old-school TV guide layout. Hulu is also the only service currently running on the Nintendo Switch, for what that’s worth.
But for me, none of that makes up for Hulu’s biggest downside: the pro league channels (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL) are all missing. And while it has a top streaming service backing it, I had more technical issues using Hulu than I did on YouTube TV (though never beyond the point of mild frustration). Still, in both on-demand value and creative flair, it offers something unique.
An AT&T product, NOW has picked up the most new users in 2018 and could be the most popular service by this time next year. I’d attribute that growth to three factors. 1) It’s base, $40/month package includes most major non-sports channels, 2) AT&T users can get a significant discount depending on their phone plan, and 3) DIRECTV has offered some great promotions, including a free Apple TV with a pre-paid plan.
Right now though, DIRECTV’s free Roku offer is far from peerless, and the same goes for its sports offerings. You’ll need to bump up to the $55/month option to get regional sports networks, NFL Network or SEC Network. The experience is average, not worth the extra money unless you can live without the sports channels (in which case, this isn’t the guide for you), or can get a deal through the carrier or via a limited time promotion.
The only service not owned by a larger media company, fubo has a lot going for it. FOMOPOP found it had the shortest delay compared to live TV. It’s the only streamer offering (occasional) 4K streams. And its $45/month option is the cheapest way to get every New York sports network, plus some hard-to-find soccer-specific channels.
All of that said, fubo doesn’t carry ABC or any ESPN network. For most football fans, that’s going to make it a no-go.