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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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Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, fans were able to return to NBA arenas at the end of last year’s delayed and truncated season. That will continue in 2021-22 as the teams return to a complete 82-game schedule in front of full-capacity crowds. If you can’t make it to live games or just don’t feel comfortable returning to the stands yet, you can still catch all the hardwood action even if you don’t have a cable subscription. As in the past, big matchups will be broadcast nationally on ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, TNT, and NBA TV; you can get most, if not all, of these covered with a single streaming package.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the regional sports networks (RSNs) that air the bulk of the teams’ games. Fox Sports, NBC Sports, YES Network, Marquee Sports Network, and other RSNs have been dropped from YouTube TV, Hulu With Live TV, Sling TV, and fuboTV over the last year over carriage-fee disputes. If you’re mainly interested in following your local team through the season, your best bet is to determine which streaming service has an agreement with your team’s regional network and go with that one. Chances are it will also stream some of or all the cable networks mentioned above. 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 19, 2021 to report all your streaming options for the 2021-22 NBA season

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 your local ABC affiliate’s broadcast tower. The bad news is the network is scheduled to air only 19 of this year’s nationally televised games. These, however, include some of the league’s marquee matchups, including three Christmas Day games: Celtics vs. Bucks, Warriors vs. Suns, and Nets vs. Lakers.

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 $35 per month (currently $10 for the first month), Sling’s Orange package will get you ESPN/ESPN 2 and TNT. You can also get NBA TV with the Sports Extra add-on for an additional $11. With a TV antenna to catch the ABC broadcasts, you’ll have everything covered.

DirectTV Stream

You can also get ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, and NBA TV with DirectTV Stream, formerly AT&T TV Now. All you need is the basic Entertainment package for $70 per month. You might also be able to get your local team’s games, as DirectTV Stream is the only service to offer a full complement of regional sports networks, including the NBC Sports regional networks, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, New England Sports Network, YES Network, and Spectrum SportsNet LA. To find out what’s available in your area, enter your ZIP code into DirectTV Stream’s channel lookup. Note that you’ll still need an antenna to watch games on ABC.

Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV

Both Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV give you access to ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, and TNT, for a flat fee of $55 a month for the first three months and $65 a month thereafter. But only YouTube TV offers NBA TV, giving it the edge for hoop heads. With just the one channel package, however, you don’t get the customizability of Sling TV or AT&T TV Now, so keep that in mind if you plan to use your subscription beyond basketball season.

youtubetv1 Jared Newman / TechHive

YouTube TV uses a small number of menu sections to make navigation easier.

FuboTV

FuboTV offers ABC and ESPN in its $65-per-month Starter package, but none of its packages include TNT. This package also includes regional networks NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Sports California, which is great news if you’re a fan of the Kings, Warriors, Lakers, or Clippers. You can add NBA TV by purchasing the Sports Lite add-on for $10 a month.

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 every feed (home, away, mobile view, plus additional languages and camera angles) of a game on your TV, computer, tablets, and smartphones. Games originally broadcast on ESPN, TNT, and ABC are available three 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 enables you to stream a game on two devices at once and watch all games commercial free.

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 a 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 San Francisco 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, however, isn’t necessarily defined by your town’s city limits.

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.”

That means 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 Blackout Notice in the middle of this page 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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