For many people, the main reason to subscribe to cable or satellite is sports. (The huge licensing fees that sports leagues command, by the way, are a big reason you can’t watch sports without such a subscription—and why subscription fees are so high.) Watching live sports without cable used to be easier, but more and more sports programming has shifted from OTA broadcast to cable. For example, of 38 college-football bowl games in the 2015–2016 season, only four aired on OTA networks. Even the NCAA basketball tournament has moved its semifinal games onto cable networks. For the sports fan, watching all the important games without cable has become impossible.
The good news is that the services we covered in the section on streaming packages offer a good number of streaming sports channels. Each service’s cheapest plan includes access to ESPN, and other plans also include Fox Sports 1, NFL Network, NBC Sports Network, TNT, TBS, certain Fox Sports regional networks, and specialized sports stations.
On the other hand, you won’t find the popular Fox Soccer or regional sports networks that might carry local MLB, NBA, and NHL teams. These are missing because they’re owned by a cable company and thus are available only to subscribers of that service. You can watch games that local teams play on ESPN, but you usually can’t watch every game through these services. In addition, some particular events are subject to their own licensing rules—for example, you can’t watch Monday Night Football through Sling TV on your mobile phone, because Verizon has exclusive rights to stream NFL games to phones.
Unlike some of the other streaming services available, Fubo.tv is marketed directly at sports fans. Not only does it have access to the standard sports channels, ESPN, NBC Sports Network, and Fox Sports 1, but it also includes the most robust combination of specialized sports stations. Fans of college football and international soccer, in particular, should be satisfied by the services access to the Big Ten Network, Pac 12 Network, and BeIN Sports. Also, Fubo.tv provides access to certain regional sports networks depending on where you live. In New York, we found that Fubo.tv subscribers could stream programming from the YES Network, which broadcasts New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets games.
Of course, as mentioned above, watching live sports through a streaming service means you’ll suffer a bit of a delay. If you’re watching the game on your own, you probably won’t notice, but you won’t want to follow along on Twitter or read text messages from your friends if you want to avoid spoilers. (Wirecutter staffers sometimes notice the neighbors yelling after an exciting play only to see it happen on our TVs 15 to 30 seconds later.) And if you’re using an older media streamer, we’ve found that Sling TV can start to stutter and lag after streaming a football game for two-plus hours; we “fix” the problem by restarting the app during a commercial break.
Although these drawbacks sound fairly significant, streaming sports can work out well if what you want to watch is available on your service of choice. For example, football fans can pay $20 to $40 a month during the college and NFL seasons, stream almost all the games to any device, and then cancel when the season ends; if you want to watch only March Madness, a single month of streaming will get you access to all the games.
Most sports leagues also have their own streaming services for games: NFL Sunday Ticket, NBA League Pass, MLB.tv, and NHL.tv let you watch games on your streaming device or computer. Unfortunately, due to blackout rules, you often don’t get access to your local team, which is what many people want to watch most. If you’re a big fan of the sport overall, or if your favorite team isn’t your local team, these services give you access to (almost) all games anywhere you are. Though somewhat expensive, they’re priced similarly to getting the games in your cable TV package.