Watching college football on your digital devices

Being a college football fan used to be a fairly simple matter. Games were played on Saturdays. Flip on a TV set and you’d find those games airing on two, maybe three channels. What you lost in choice, you at least made up for in certainty.

Those days are long gone: College football has expanded rapidly in recent years, with more than 213 million total viewers tuned in to watch at least some college football on TV last season, and total attendance across the 638 colleges and universities with a football team totalling just a hair less than 50 million—an all-time record. Turn on your TV almost any day of the week, and chances are you’ll find a game on. As this article was published, it’s not even Saturday, and more than a dozen games have already been played in the just begun 2012 college football season.

College football has moved beyond a few channels on your TV dial, making a serious move into regional TV and streaming. It’s a fractured broadcast landscape, both on your tube and online, but it’s not so overwhelming once you know where to look.

What’s on TV

CBS is the home of the Southeastern Conference, from which college football’s national champion has emerged for six years running. Disney-owned ABC and ESPN (as well as ESPN2 and ESPNU) carry the majority of college football games on TV. (The network’s complete TV schedule can be found here.) Both Fox and sister network FX (which is better known for gritty dramas like Sons of Anarchy and Justified, also have a full slate of games planned, mostly picking from schools in the Pac-12, Big 10, and Big 12. NBC and its NBC Sports Network (the cable channel formerly known as Versus) will air 32 games this fall, including Notre Dame and contests from the Mountain West Conference, Ivy League, and Colonial Athletic Association. CBS Sports Network, another upstart cable network looking to make in-roads, will also air a season-long slate of assorted matchups.

Aside from broadcast TV and basic cable, more targeted and wholly owned conference networks have popped up in recent years. In 2007, Fox Sports helped launch the Big 10 Network, catering to those member schools found primarily throughout the Ohio River Valley and upper midwestern US. And just last month saw the launch of the Pac-12 Network, headquartered in San Francisco and the head of a group that encompasses six sub-branches of its own. For now, content is basically mirrored between the national Pac-12 Network and the six regional offshoots, but in time, as more programming is produced, those sub-channels will become more tailored to the regions they serve. So customers in the Bay Area will get their Stanford and Cal-Berkeley fixes on Pac-12 Bay Area, while those in Southern California will get more UCLA and USC highlights on Pac-12 Los Angeles, and so forth.

Beyond these targeted cable channels, which may only be available through your provider’s sports package, there are also high-end pay-per-view packages for hardcore fans. ESPN’s GamePlan, which is available to certain digital cable customers, provides up to 15 extra out-of-market games each week from eight different conferences. (The big exception is the Big 10 conference, which relies on its own network.) GamePlan is carried by all the biggest providers, including Comcast Xfinity, Cablevision Optimum, Bright House Networks, Verizon FiOS, and Time Warner Cable. Pricing varies slightly by provider, although most charge around $140 for the full season, and there should be a significant price cut around mid-October, once the season is halfway through.

Streaming solutions

A policy change by ESPN means that the cable giant’s WatchESPN app is the place to go for live streaming of college football broadcasts.

There’s also ESPN Goal Line, which operates as a younger, distant cousin to the NFL’s RedZone Channel. Airing only during Saturday afternoons, a period when lots of games are being played, the Goal Line channel jumps around between major contests as events and plays warrant attention.

One noteworthy change this season is that ESPN3, an online service that simulcasted programming from every ESPN channel, will no longer be showing live games. The only way to officially watch ESPN college football broadcasts online will now be through WatchESPN.com and its corresponding app, available for both iOS and Android. The clear downside to ESPN’s policy change is that it requires authentication with a certain cable provider, but if you’re a customer of Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Verizon FiOS, or Comcast Xfinity—and that would be about 40 million of you—then you’re set.

The CBS Sports mobile app features extensive college football coverage including live streaming of some games on Saturday.

ESPN faces some competition in the mobile areana from the CBS Sports mobile app, which also streams college football games. Available in both iOS (in iPhone and iPad versions) and Android varieties, its current streaming functionality was announced in an app update during the spring. But early iterations of CBS’s mobile app have handled live streaming of football games just fine, and the CBS Sports mobile app enjoys a reputation as one of the slickest sports offerings, with a pleasant and clean UI combined that works fast.

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