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Basketball without cable: A cord-cutter's guide to the NBA

Cord-cutters can get their fill of big nationally televised games, but local broadcasts remain on the bench.

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The NBA season starts Tuesday night and with it a bucket of new storylines for hoopheads to follow. Will the addition of Russell Westbrook help get the Houston Rockets over their playoff hump? Is Zion Williamson destined to be Rookie of the Year? Can Klay Thompson recover in time to help propel the Warriors back to the postseason?

Despite sports media’s love for speculation, the answers can only be found by watching the games. And that can be tough to do if you’re a cord-cutter. As with baseball, televised basketball has become a primarily cable-only affair. This season, the bulk of nationally televised games will be aired on the league’s own cable and satellite network, NBA TV, with the rest split among ESPN, TNT, and ABC. If you’re a “big game” hunter, there are a few ways to catch these broadcasts without a cable-TV subscription.

The outlook is grimmer if you’re mainly interested in following your local team through the season. Most teams’ regular-season games are carried by regional cable sports networks like Fox Sports and NBC Sports, which are inaccessible online without TV Everywhere credentials. A few teams can still be found on over-the-air channels—the Chicago Bulls on the windy city’s WGN, for one—but that arrangement is rapidly going the way of the two-handed set shot.

Updated October 21, 2019 to report how to watch the NBA 2019-2020 season without cable TV.

Over the air

20190125 131322 Martyn Williams/IDG

Winegard’s Flatwave Amped antenna (model number FL-5500A) is one of our favorite indoor antennas.

The good news is you can access ABC for free if you have an over-the-air TV antenna (you’ll find our top antenna picks here) and are within the radius of a local ABC affiliate’s broadcast tower. The bad news is the network airs only 19 of this year’s nationally televised games. These, however, include some of the league’s marquee matchups, including a Christmas Day match-up between the new-look Warriors and the rejuvenated Rockets.

You can watch the remaining games with some combination of the following services.

Sling TV

The easiest way to catch many of the cable telecasts is with the Sling TV streaming service, but you’ll need to pony up for a monthly subscription. For $15 per month, Sling’s Orange package will get you ESPN and TNT. With a digital antenna to catch the ABC broadcasts, that leaves only the NBA TV games to account for.

PlayStation Vue

PlayStation Vue offers channel packages similar to those of Sling TV, but also includes live feeds from the major networks—including ABC—in select markets. If you’re fortunate enough to live in one, you can buy the Access channel bundle, which includes ABC, ESPN, and TNT for $50 per month. You can also use your PlayStation Vue credentials to sign in to TV Everywhere apps such as Fox Sports Go and NBC Sports to catch your regional broadcasts at no extra charge. To see which Vue Access package is available in your area, enter your zip code on the website.

playstation vue 4 Sony

PlayStation Vue still has an old-fashioned channel guide, but with the axes reversed.

AT&T TV Now

You can also get ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and TNT with AT&T TV Now. All you need is the basic Plus package for $50 per month. That will get you 50-plus channels, about five more than PlayStation Vue’s comparable Access package, for the same price.

Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV

Both  Hulu with Live TV  and YouTube TV give you access to ABC, ESPN, and TNT, though as with other services, the exact channel lineup varies by market. But only YouTube TV offers NBA TV, making its slightly higher monthly price—$50 per month to Hulu with Live TV’s $45—worth the expense for hoops fans. With only the one channel package, though, you don’t get the customizability of Sling TV or PlayStation Vue, so keep that in mind if you plan to use your subscription beyond basketball season.

FuboTV

The once soccer-centric FuboTV is now an all-purpose streaming service with some perks for NBA fans. The main one is that its $55-per-month basic package includes TNT and NBA TV. It also contains a variety of regional sport networks, that, depending on where you live, might give you access to your local team’s broadcasts. What it doesn’t include are ABC or ESPN, which together account for more than 100 games, so you’ll need to complement it with one or two of the choices above to catch all the basketball action.

fubotv2 FuboTV

Fubo has lots of appeal to sports fans, and it includes NBA TV. But your subscription won’t give you access to ABC, TNT, or ESPN.

NBA League Pass

If you’re truly hardcore for the hardwood, you should consider a subscription to NBA League Pass, the league’s official streaming service. For $200 a year or $29 per month, you can watch every live out-of-market game that isn’t being broadcast nationally on one of the four networks we’ve mentioned.

A League Pass subscription allows you to watch up to four games at once in HD, and it works on computers, tablets, smartphones, and streaming devices. Games originally broadcast on ESPN, TNT, and ABC are available 24 hours after completion in the video archives. You also get anytime access to a curated selection of “classic” games.

For $250 a year or $40 per month, you can upgrade to NBA League Pass Premium, which adds an in-arena stream during game breaks.

nba league pass NBA Media Ventures, LLC.

With an NBA League Pass subscription, you can stream live out-of-market games to your TV, computer, or mobile device.

NBA Team Pass

Two bills is a big investment if you only want to follow your favorite team. NBA Team Pass is one less-expensive alternative. For $120 a year or $18 per month, you get access to all your squad’s local broadcasts for both home and away games.

The rub is that NBA blackout rules still apply. If you live in your team’s “home” market—a Warriors fan residing in the Bay Area, for example—you still won’t be able to watch their games even with a Team Pass subscription (this goes for League Pass as well). Your team’s home market isn’t necessarily defined by your town’s city limits, however.

In the NBA’s own words, the league determines blackout zones “using zip code (if watching via a satellite television provider), a combination of zip code and cable system distribution territory (if watching via a cable television provider), or by the IP address associated with your internet connection or your mobile device’s GPS coordinates.”

What that means is this isn’t a cord-cutting option for everyone. The only way to be sure of your situation is to enter your zip code in the league’s Blackout Explorer before you sign up for one of the NBA subscriptions.

NBA streaming is still 50-50 ball

Streaming live NBA games continues to be a mixed bag for cord-cutters. The availability of national broadcasts through streaming services gives you a courtside seat for some of the biggest matchups of the season. But local fanbases who want to follow their team continue to be left on the bench, for the most part. Until streaming options for regional sports networks become more widely available, you might want to dust off your radio.

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