Primed for pigskin: How to watch NFL football anywhere
It’s been 50 years since the National Football League entered into a landmark agreement with CBS to air every game played in the then-14 team operation. And from that point on, the NFL has, for all intents, been the king of American sports—at least when it comes to the viewing public. In 2011, nine of the 10 most-watched single telecasts were NFL-related. (That lone outlier? The Oscars.) And last February’s Super Bowl XLVI becoming the most-watched TV program in US history with 111.3 million viewers.
The NFL isn’t content to rule just the dial, however; the league has made a made a move into online streaming worthy of Barry Sanders. Take last February when the NFL simulcast the Super Bowl on both NFL.com and NBCSports.com. (NBC isn’t the exclusive online home for the Super Bowl. The big game actually rotates every year between three networks—CBS gets it next February.) More than 2 million people signed up for the inaugural offering, showing that there’s even more growth to be found in mobile and online than anyone had suspected.
With a digital landscape becoming more dominated by the pigskin, it can be daunting to know where to turn, so here’s a guide to all your options, from TV to tablets and everything in between.
On the tube
With the NFL, TV will likely always be king. With such a limited schedule—only 16 regular-season games per team compared to baseball’s 162—each match-up is treated as a premium product. Plus, the relatively dependable schedule—Sunday afternoons from September through December—translates to easy appointment viewing for many people.
Because each NFL team belongs to either the National Football Conference or American Football Conference, it’s easy for the league to divvy up the slate. Fox gets the NFC games, while CBS airs the AFC, with most contests starting on Sundays at either 1 p.m. or 4:25 pm ET. NBC gets the coveted Sunday Night Football telecast, which starts at 8:20 pm. ET. Monday Night Football, which originated in 1970 on ABC, now lives on ESPN and kicks off at 8:30 pm. ET. The upstart NFL Network also airs select games on Thursday nights throughout the season, including one on Thanksgiving evening.
Unfortunately, to maximize their viewing audience and help get butts in the stadium seats, the NFL also enforces a complicated and arcane set of “blackout” rules and regional viewing restrictions. That means a) unless your team sells a certain percentage of seats for a game, that game will not air in your market, and b) your area may be subject to seemingly random games at times. To stay up on the broadcast TV offerings in your area, The506.com is an invaluable resource and should be a site always kept close in the fall. In addition to a complete weekly rundown of games, the site offers color-coded maps that show exactly which game will air where and on what network.
On a growing number of cable providers, customers are able to access the NFL’s internally owned and operated channel, dubbed RedZone, that spends about seven hours each Sunday showing nothing but continuous highlights from every game, even cutting in to show live coverage when warranted. Hosted by Scott Hanson and aired at a frenetic pace that includes no commercial breaks, this entire channel exists solely for this seven-hour window on Sundays. Not since 24 went off the air has a TV program so emulated the rush of pure, nonstop adrenaline. It’s not for everyone, but it’s strangely addictive if all you want are highlights and touchdowns.
The ultimate TV package is available solely to DirecTV subscribers who are willing to pay up. For $200, these folks can sign for NFL Sunday Ticket, which makes available every single Sunday afternoon out-of-market game, broadcast simultaneously along a gauntlet of channels. You can also watch up to eight games at once on what DirecTV deems the Mix Channel, and its Player Tracker lets you keep tabs on up to 18 players (a big perk for any fantasy football junkie). There are two packages offered, with the basic one giving customers everything described above. For an extra $100, you can sign up for NFL Sunday Ticket Max, which throws in NFL RedZone Channel and Short Cuts, which condenses games into 30-minute chunks for easier viewing after they air.
The big get with the Max package, though, is the ability to stream Sunday Ticket via DirecTV’s mobile streaming app, available for both iOS and Android, as well as streaming on your computer. The app is free (although you’re already paying $300 for the TV package) and an incredible value-add for customers who can’t get in front of a TV when their favorite team is playing.
The Max package also lets you watch games on a Sony PlayStation 3, via an app that was slated to come out Tuesday. PlayStation 3 owners will be able to get live streaming of Sunday Ticket Games, the Red Zone channel, video highlights, and game and player stats, among other features.
The only caveat with Sunday Ticket is that games played outside of the typical Sunday afternoon slate—that is, night games on Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and Saturday—are not technically part of Sunday Ticket and therefore not accessible via TV or the mobile app. (Also, if you don’t feel like paying $300, you can wait until midseason when the price is inevitably slashed.)
As for online, you’re not going to find any official live streaming outside of DirecTV’s Max package. NFL.com does offer something called GameRewind, which provides archived broadcasts of every game after it airs. The service now includes All-22 film, which had previously been only available to teams; it gives viewers wide-angled video that shows all 22 players on the field at once. That costs $70, while a scaled-down version (which opts for the regular game film as well as other viewing restrictions) only costs $40, a 20-percent price cut from last season.
The NFL’s official mobile app, free for both iOS and Android, doesn’t quite rise to the level of quality and content of MLB’s At Bat 12, but it’s more than a glorified scoreboard. The NFL’s mobile offering provides video highlights, customizable team alerts that are easily set up, and built-in fantasy football updates (provided that you play through NFL.com). The NFL’s app is especially eye-pleasing on the iPad, which operates in landscape mode and squeezes all 16 games of one week’s schedule onto the screen in a convenient four-by-four arrangement. And with the optimized app on the iPad and Android tablets, you can access the $30 Audio Pass, which streams live radio from any game in progress, as well as access to archived radio broadcasts for each game going back to the 2009 season. Because the Audio Pass is processed as any other in-app purchase, it literally takes seconds to enjoy streaming audio from any iPad.
Outside of that, your (legal) mobile options are looking pretty slim. Verizon Wireless does offer NFL Mobile (to iOS and Android users) that does stream live video of select night games to handsets, if you pay the extra $10 a month for Verizon’s V Cast. However, the app is inaccessible to non-Verizon users and doesn’t yet work on the third-generation iPad.