In its way, the NFL pioneered sports broadcasting. It wasn’t the first professional sport league in the US to take advantage of the tube—Major League Baseball beat it to both network and cable television—but it always maximized the medium better than any of its competitors. From its first league-wide network contracts in the 1960s to its expansion to satellite TV in the 1990s, pro football has secured its foothold in America’s living rooms so thoroughly that it’s now the primary way fans connect with the game.
Now 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 8, with a Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. 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 or 4:25 p.m. ET, and Fox runs the NFC games at 1 p.m. and 4:05 p.m. NBC retains the popular Sunday Night Football broadcast, which kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET.
This year, 10 of 18 Thursday Night Football broadcasts will be split between CBS and NBC, with each network airing five games. CBS gets the first half of the season, with NBC taking over on November 17. All 10 games will be simulcast on the cable-only NFL Network, and the league’s flagship channel retains sole ownership of the remaining eight games.
For the second consecutive year, the league has voted to 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.
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 11th 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 $250 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 $100 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.
You don’t necessarily have to be a DirecTV subscriber 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 Verizon subscribers with More Everything plan can live stream all nationally broadcast games through the NFL Mobile app. Both Fox and CBS streamed a selection of games last season, though as of press time neither had indicated if they would repeat the offer this year.
Last season, the NFL partnered with Yahoo! To live stream a single regular-season game for free for the first time ever. This year the league has joined forces with Twitter to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games—the same ones broadcast by NBC and CBS—to a worldwide audience. The digital presentations will include in-game highlights as well as pre-game Periscope broadcasts from the teams and players. You won’t necessarily be tethered to your PC or mobile device to watch these games, either; Twitter is currently talking with Apple about bringing the app to Apple TV.
Perhaps even bigger news is the announcement that two popular streaming services have added the NFL Network and NFL RedZone to their channel lineups (NFL RedZone coverage starts on September 11). Sling TV subscribers now 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 $5 per month. PlayStation Vue includes the NFL Network channel in its Core ($35 per month) and Elite ($45 per month) subscribers. Those subscribers can add an NFL RedZone season pass for $40. In all three instances, subscribers will also have access to both channels through NFL.com, the NFL app on connected TV devices, and the NFL Mobile app.
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.
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.