State of Streaming 2017 — Why Sports Won’t Save Cable

Can Sports Save CableTV?

It’s become abundantly clear to me that only sports fans need a traditional TV subscription from the Comcast, DirecTV and the other major distributors. Between Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services you can cobble together just about everything else at a fraction of the average $103 cable bill (according to Leichtman Research Group).

Kids, movies, news, binge series, reality — most everything is available to be streamed, perhaps a day or two late, but you can still watch it. The only outlier — sports, and in most cases local sports.

That’s changing too. Local football fans can mostly get their fix via free over the air (OTA) broadcasts (except for ESPN’s Monday Night Football) using an antenna — as long as they are within range and not occluded by hills or buildings. And new streaming offerings including Sony’s VUE and CBS All Access make it possible for SOME fans to watch SOME games without a cable or satellite subscription. Basketball, Hockey and Baseball fans who root for teams out of their local markets can subscribe to streaming packages that in many ways surpass what’s offered by traditional distributors. But most sports fans are still stuck with one of those pricey TV subscriptions.

That wouldn’t be so bad for the true sports fan, if it were simple to watch those games you’ve already paid for wherever you might be. For $100 or more a month, today’s video consumer expects anywhere, anytime on any device for that which they’ve paid for. Alas, based on my testing over the past 6 months, that promise is uneven at best. What follows is not meant to be comprehensive — but instead is just one fan’s experience trying to cobble together watching teams at home and on the go (albeit one with more than his fair share of OTT boxes and other service).

Part One of this Two Part Series looks more closely at Football — the biggest sport of them all, and the one most likely to keep its fans connected to the cable-TV umbilical cord. Part II will look at baseball and hockey — which are better, but by no means perfect.

FOOTBALL: As a Patriots fan living in San Francisco, OTA doesn’t cut it — even though I’m line of site to the HTDV broadcast towers. Instead I’m forced to buy the DirecTV’s expensive Sunday Ticket , which gives subscribers access to every out of market football game. In addition to TV playback it includes great streaming options for Roku, XBOX, PlayStation, Mac and Windows PCs and nearly every tablet (including Windows and Kindle). You really can take Sunday Ticket everywhere.

My only complaint is that even after spending all that money you still can’t watch reliably due to stupid “blackout” rules and network greed. The former cuts off streaming if your game is playing on local TV — even if you are thousands of miles from either team’s home base. When I was in Hawaii in November the game I wanted to watch was being broadcast locally — and I was out of luck because I had no TV access.

And even national playoff games can be problematic. I was out of TV range in Vermont last weekend, but with super-fast fiber. NBC and Fox streamed perfectly on a Roku after authenticating to DirecTV, but CBS insisted that I subscribe to All Access, even though I already paid for CBS. I hate double dipping. At least CBS makes it easy to cancel online without jumping through the phone-tree hoops required by other legacy multi-channel subscription services.

Most football fans — particularly those that want to watch out-of-market games and can’t (or won’t) use an antenna for OTA — a cable or satellite subscription is a must. Football is an expensive addiction, and will remain so for a while.

Cracks in the walls are increasing. Even though DirecTV has a lock on Sunday Ticket with the NFL through 2022, there are alternatives. Verizon offers streaming of local and prime-time games, along with playoff games, to all subscribers. But it’s for your phone only — casting or tethering to a big screen TV is blocked. And if you’re not locked into watching live, NFL’s Game Pass service will stream games shortly after they are over for just $100 a year.

I expect streaming options will increase in 2017, but it’s unlikely that most hard-core football fans will truly be able to cut the cord for at least another six years.

Check out Part 2 for more on sports streaming and my conclusions about whether sports fans will save CableTV.

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