The NFL wants to conquer the screens that dominate 21st-century culture: computers, tablets, and mobile phones. After years of fumbling its digital presentation, the league is finally embracing live streaming as part of a “tri-cast” distribution model of broadcast, cable, and internet, the last through a partnership with Twitter.
Thanks to these developments, there are now more ways than ever to get your gridiron on when the season gets underway on Thursday, September 7, with a matchup between the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s our guide to all your options.
Over the air
Unlike the NBA, NHL, or MLB, the NFL plays a simple 16-game schedule with each team playing one game a week. That lends itself to fairly predictable TV programming. The league splits the Sunday afternoon telecasts by conference: AFC games air on CBS at 1 p.m. and 4:05 p.m. ET, and Fox runs the NFC games at 1 p.m. and 4:25 p.m. NBC retains the popular Sunday Night Football broadcast, which kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET. All you’ll need is an over-the-air digital TV antenna and to reasonable proximity to a broadcast tower. You’ll find our top antenna picks here.
This year, 11 of 18 Thursday Night Football broadcasts will be split between CBS and NBC. CBS gets the first half of the season, with NBC taking over on November 9. All 11 games will be simulcast on the cable-only NFL Network, and the league’s flagship channel retains sole ownership of the remaining eight games.
If this abundance of TV offerings has your head swimming like you just took a bone-crushing hit from J.J. Watt, check out 506Sports.com or Sports Media Watch. Each site lists which game is on what channel for each week of the season. Bookmark them for easy access.
Bye bye blackouts
For the third consecutive year, the league will lift its longstanding—and controversial—blackout policy. Since 1973, pro football’s broadcast rules maintained that a home game couldn’t be televised in the team’s local market if it wasn’t sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. The blackout policy was the strictest of the four major North American sports and the bane of every fan and team owner (Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross famously bought up unsold tickets for years to circumvent TV blackouts).
Now that billion-dollar broadcast deals make football more profitable in the living room than in the stadium, the NFL is at least entertaining the idea of jettisoning its archaic policy. After the season, it will again evaluate the suspension’s impact and decide whether or not to do away with blackouts permanently. Stay tuned.
You don’t necessarily have to be a DirecTV subscriber (see below) to stream live games this season. The provider continues to offer discounted NFL Sunday Ticket subscriptions for online access to select groups: (very) specifically, apartment dwellers; college students; and residents of metropolitan New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. You can check your eligibility on the NFLSundayTicket.TV site. Games can be viewed via the web or on iOS and Android devices, Google Chromecast, Xbox 360, and Roku and Sony PlayStation consoles.
Outside of DirecTV, legal streaming options for NFL games continue to expand. NBC offers an interactive broadband broadcast of its televised games, and CBS streams its telecasts to subscribers of its CBS All Access service. Verizon subscribers with a More Everything plan can live stream all nationally broadcast games through the NFL Mobile app. Fox will also stream its game broadcasts, but they requires a cable login to access through the Fox Sports Go app.
Last season, the NFL partnered with Twitter to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games—the same ones broadcast by NBC and CBS—to a worldwide audience. This year those network-broadcast TNF games will be streamed by Amazon Prime Video. That’s not an insignificant change of hosts. The Twitter streams were available to anyone for free, but Amazon requires you to be an Amazon Prime subscriber (an annual subscription costs $99).
Perhaps even bigger news was the launch earlier this year of Hulu with Live TV, a Hulu subscription service that streams live programming from the four big broadcast networks as well as some cable channels. The $40-per-month base package will get you all the season’s Sunday games and Monday Night Football, but not Thursday Night Football.
Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, however, continue to offer the NFL Network, as well as NFL RedZone in their channel lineups. Sling TV subscribers get the NFL Network as part of the $25-per-month Sling Blue subscription package, while NFL RedZone is offered with the Sports Extra add-on for an additional $10 per month. PlayStation Vue includes the NFL Network channel in its Core ($45 per month) subscription. Those subscribers can add NFL RedZone with the addition of the Sports Pack for $10 a month.
That’s good news for cord-cutters who can potentially get their complete football fix from either service, as both already deliver live NFL action via ESPN, as well as NBC and Fox in select markets.
NFL Game Pass
While this app is currently available only on smartphones and tablets (it is Chromecast compatible), NFL Game Pass lets you watch all out-of-market pre-season games live, and you can replay every regular-season game after its conclusion. If you can live without seeing the action, you can opt for live localized radio broadcasts from wherever you have broadband access.
NFL Game Pass also gives you a couple of unique ways of watching concluded games: You can see a condensed view of the game, which summarizes all the action into about 45 minutes, or you can view Coaches Film, which shows the game from your choice of two camera angles: The All 22 and the High End Zone. The All 22 camera is positioned high above the field to capture all 22 players at once. The High End Zone camera is positioned on either side of a field, high above the goal posts and behind the end zone. This camera angle shows what the play looks like as game action is happening coming toward (or going away from) the end-zone camera.
NFL Game Pass costs $99 for the season (regardless of when you sign up during the 2016/2017 season, your subscription will expire on July 31, 2018). The NFL says apps for Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, PlayStation 4, Roku, Xbox One, and are in development.
Cable and satellite TV
You can catch almost every down your home team plays this season just watching over-the-air broadcasts; but for expanded offerings, cable and satellite are still the way to go.
ESPN enters its 12th season broadcasting the iconic Monday Night Football game (it took it over from ABC in 2006), which kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET. For the season opener, however, the cable network will be broadcasting a double-header, with the first game starting at 7:10 p.m. ET and the second at 10:20 p.m. ET.
In addition to the NFL Network, many pay-TV providers continue to offer NFL’s RedZone Channel. Hosted by Scott Hanson and existing only for about a seven-hour window each Sunday, RedZone airs nothing but the day’s highlights (mostly touchdowns, as the name suggests) at a frenetic pace that perfectly evokes the adrenaline rush of a game-winning drive.
Both NFL Network and the RedZone Channel are available online as well. You can access them if you’re a cable subscriber and your cable company is listed among the providers. That caveat leaves out Comcast subscribers—the company still isn’t on the list of provider participants despite the fact that it continues to offer both channels in its cable packages.
Among the hardest-core football fans, NFL Sunday Ticket, which gives you access to every regular-season Sunday afternoon out-of-market game, is as coveted a prize as the Lombardi Trophy. However, it remains the exclusive property of DirecTV.
But if you’re a DirecTV subscriber willing to shell out around $270 on top of your regular subscription fee, you can get all of 2016’s out-of-market Sunday games plus the Mix Channel, which lets you watch four or eight live games on a single channel, and its Player Tracker, a fantasy-football owner’s dream that lets you keep tabs on up to 20 players.
Or for about $90 more, you can get the NFL Sunday Ticket Max, which throws in NFL RedZone Channel, Direct Fantasy Zone (a channel devoted entirely to fantasy football), Short Cuts (entire games condensed into 30-minute commercial-free replays), and the ability to stream live games through the NFL Sunday Ticket app.
Looking down field
Super Bowl LI broke previous streaming records for the NFL championship game, with an average streaming audience of 1.7 million—three million more viewers than the previous year’s audience.
While that represents just a tiny fraction of all Super Bowl viewing, it shows that there is an audience willing to embrace alternatives. And if the NFL continues to make a serious commitment to live streaming, perhaps it will set new bar for broadcasting sports in the 21st century just as it did in the 20th.
Looking for even more ways to watch the game this season? Don’t miss our roundup of second-screen apps, and our complete cord-cutters guide to watching football (each of those stories will be updated next week, in preparation for the start of the regular season).