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A cord-cutters guide to watching sports without cable TV

You probably don't need cable to watch your favorite sports teams. Here's how to get all the action through online streaming services instead.

Rob Schultz / IDG

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For a lot of people, live sports is the main reason to hang onto an expensive pay TV package. If you want to watch your favorite team play in real time, you probably can’t do it without access to broadcast, regional, and national sports channels, all of which remain tied to big TV bundles.

The good news is that you no longer need cable or satellite TV service to access these channels. With live TV streaming services such as YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and FuboTV, you might be able to get the same coverage online at a fraction of the cost. And with new streaming services such as ESPN+ and DAZN, sports superfans can get more coverage than cable ever had.

Still, not all live TV streaming services have exactly the same channels or offer the same experience. Below, I’ll break down your best streaming options, sport-by-sport.

First, a disclaimer

Your ability to watch live sports without cable will largely depend on where you are. Some markets may not offer a full array of local broadcast channels on every streaming service, and some regional sports channels haven’t yet made the jump to streaming at all. (Looking at you, Spectrum SportsNet.) For live TV streaming services such as YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, Fubo TV, AT&T TV Now, and Sling TV, I strongly suggest entering your zip code into their respective websites for a list of local and regional channel coverage.

Best service for streaming sports: YouTube TV

youtubetv1 Jared Newman / TechHive

Earlier in the year, we would have given this honor to PlayStation Vue. But with Sony’s live TV streaming service due to shut down in January, YouTube TV is the next-best option.

For $50 per month, YouTube TV provides all four major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) in nearly every market; regional sports coverage from Fox Sports and NBCSN (plus NESN in Boston and SNY in New York); national coverage from ESPN, TBS, TNT, NBC Sports, and CBS Sports Network; and several league-specific networks including NBA TV and MLB Network. You can even add Fox Soccer Plus for $15 per month.

YouTube TV doesn’t have every sports channel you might get through cable (NFL Network and NFL Redzone are major omissions). Still, it’s the cheapest option for the most popular sports coverage on TV, its video quality is excellent, and it works on every major streaming device with the recent arrival of Fire TV support.

Best services for streaming football

nfl2 National Football League

For football coverage in general, we still give YouTube TV the nod for the same reasons as above: Great video quality, broad local and national sports channel coverage, and a lower price than its closest competitors. It does not offer NFL Redzone, but you can subscribe to Redzone as a standalone service if you don’t mind watching it on your phone only.

You have a couple options if you must have Redzone on your TV:

  • FuboTV ($55 per month) includes Redzone in its $9 per month Sports Plus package, which brings the total cost to $64 per month, but it doesn’t include ABC, ESPN, or the SEC Network, so you’ll be shut out of Monday Night Football and a big chunk of college football coverage. (Pro football fans can still watch Monday night games on a phone through the NFL app, at least)
  • Sling TV Blue offers Redzone in its Sports Extra package for a total of $30 per month, but if you want ESPN and SEC Network, you’ll need to step up to Sling TV Orange, bringing the total to $50 per month. Either way, you’ll probably need an antenna for local channel coverage, because Sling’s is sorely lacking.

Best services for streaming baseball

mlb tv screen capture MLB Network

For baseball coverage, you’ll most likely need a package that includes your nearest regional sports channel, plus TBS, ESPN, FS1, Fox, and possibly the MLB Network for playoffs and nationally televised games. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, YouTube TV is the only service that meets all those criteria, though Hulu with Live TV will also suffice if you can live without whatever random playoff game winds up on the MLB Network.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a different area than your favorite team, you can avoid the TV bundle entirely and subscribe to MLB.TV for live, out-of-market game streams. For the 2019 season, MLB charged $92 for single-team coverage and $119 for all out-of-market games, but don’t be surprised if those prices increase slightly in 2020. Also, keep in mind that you’ll experience blackouts if a game is nationally televised or if your favorite team is playing against your local team, and you’ll still need to pick up a TV bundle to watch the playoffs.

Best services for streaming basketball

Thinkstock Basketball Thinkstock

Watching basketball without cable will likely require a combination of your regional sports network, TNT, ESPN, ABC, and NBA TV. In most cases, the only service that checks all of those boxes is YouTube TV.

New York area residents, however, should look to either AT&T TV Now ($75 per month for the “Max” package) or FuboTV ($55 per month), as these are the only services that include MSG for Knicks coverage. While AT&T’s service includes ABC and ESPN, FuboTV does not, though it does offer NBA TV at no extra charge. (It may be easier to just become a Nets fan.)

For out-of-market games, NBA League Pass costs $120 per season for a single team or $200 per season for all teams.

The best streaming services for hockey

nhltv NHL

To watch your local hockey team without cable, you’ll need access to regional sports networks, plus a sprinkling of coverage from NBC and NBC Sports. Once again, YouTube TV ($50 per month) will be the cheapest option, followed by FuboTV and Hulu with Live TV (both $55 per month). For New York and New Jersey hockey fans, FuboTV gets the edge, as it’s the cheapest option that includes MSG and MSG+.

NHL.TV is also available for out-of-market games, with a price of $116 per season for single-team coverage and $145 per season for all teams. As with other league-specific streaming services, any games that are playing in your area or on national television will be blacked out.

Best service for streaming soccer: It’s complicated

espnplus3 Jared Newman / IDG

Breaking down the specifics of soccer coverage could fill an entire article on its own, thanks to the sheer number of leagues involved. (Here's a good example.) But here’s my best attempt at a quick rundown:

  • ESPN+ ($5 per month): Out-of-market MLS games, Serie A, EFL, and Bundesliga in 2020
  • FuboTV ($55 per month): The only live TV service with Unimas, Fox Deportes, FuboTV Soccer, Galavision, GolTV ($6 intl sports), TyC Sports ($6 intl sports), and TUDN, covering various leagues
  • FuboTV and Sling Orange/Blue + Sports Extra ($35 per month): The only options for BeIN Sports, which covers various leagues
  • YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, FuboTV, and AT&T TV Now: Local MLS games across ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision; Premier League coverage on NBC and NBCSN, Bundesliga across several Fox and Fox Sports channels. (Note that FuboTV does not offer ESPN, which carries some MLS matches, Copa del Rey matches, and DFB Pokal.)
  • NBC Sports Gold ($40 per season): More Premiere League coverage
  • B/R Live ($10 per month, $80 per year): UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, EUFA Youth League, Belgian Pro League, BVB World, Liverpool FC 2019 Friendlies, Scottish Premiere League

Best service for streaming UFC

For complete UFC Fight Night coverage, you’ll need a combination of the ESPN cable channel (which will carry 10 main cards per year) and ESPN+ (which will stream the remaining 20 cards). ESPN is available via most live TV streaming services, with Sling TV Orange being the cheapest at $25 per month.

ESPN+, meanwhile, costs $5 per month, but major UFC fights such as the forthcoming UFC 245 are pay-per-view options that will cost extra.

The best streaming service for boxing

The fractured nature of boxing means there isn’t any single way to access all of the best matches. Instead, you’ll need to bounce around between Showtime ($11 per month), ESPN+ ($5 per month), and DAZN ($20 per month or $100 per year). Some events will also appear on ESPN proper, so you’ll need a live TV streaming service such as Sling TV Orange or YouTube TV to watch those, and some events will be pay-per-view through Showtime or Fox Sports.

More options for niche sports

Don’t care about major sporting events, but still enjoy the thrill of competition? Here are some other sports streaming options to consider:

  • ESPN+ ($5 per month) has a grab-bag of sporting events that are less popular in the United States, including Major League Rugby, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and the Southern Hemisphere’s SANZAAR; Cricket from New Zealand Cricket and Cricket Ireland in Test, ODI and T20 formats; and roughly 60 Canadian Football League games. You can also watch some college sports such as lacrosse, track and field, squash, and field hockey.
  • B/R Live ($10 per month, $80 per year) includes National Lacrosse League, International Field Hockey, World Armwrestling League, International Table Tennis, and Extreme Polo League
  • NBC Sports Gold offers individual passes for figure skating, winter sports, several Rugby leagues, speed skating, Premiere Lacrosse League, Supercross, Indycar, and NASCAR.

Remember, you don’t need them all at once

While the number of sports streaming services on offer can seem overwhelming, keep in mind that you don’t have to subscribe to them all at the same time. With streaming, you can easily add and drop services as needed, and you can even immediately cancel a service after signing up to avoid being automatically billed after your first month. This trick is especially useful if you only want to drop into a sport for playoff coverage or watch one big fight.

Watching live sports is still an expensive hobby, even in the streaming age, but with proper planning, you can maximize how much you watch while minimizing how much you spend.

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