As any fan knows, there are varying and distinct levels of sports allegiance, ones that require varying levels of financial commitment. If checking the standings online every morning is Sports 101, breaking down the pick and roll is Basketball 200. Calling out a nickel defense is Football 350.
Cord-cutting for sports fans is a graduate-level course. Call it Sports-Tech 700.
I moved about a month ago into my first apartment, a little studio in Bethesda, and was faced with a decision: How to fill my empty wall with sports. I am a sports reporter, which means I pretty much need to see whatever game is on that night.
If Toledo plays Miami of Ohio on Tuesday night in Mid-American Conference football, I need at least to have it playing in the background. The same is true if the Orlando Magic plays Chicago on Wednesday. Thursday night football is a must. Friday through Monday are stuffed with NFL and college football, and then whatever else comes on when the seasons change.
My building is wired exclusively for Verizon Fios, so cable service would cost $65 a month, plus whatever I had to pay for equipment and installation. I thought I could do better, so I resolved to “cut the cord.” I did some research, made my decision, then asked Twitter and the Internet for other, better arrangements.
The results were enlightening and, frankly, could save me some money down the road. So from my research, plus advice from others, here are the CliffsNotes on cord-cutting for sports fans.
1. Set a spending framework.
For me, $65 a month was way too much, especially since I pay another $50 a month for Internet. I wanted to spend no more than $40 a month on a cable replacement.
Come up with a spending framework that fits your overall household budget. Factor in one-time expenses such as equipment costs. For example, do you have a smart TV (a TV that can connect to the Internet and use apps), or do you need a little extra hardware to get you there?
2. Decide what you must have and what you would like to have.
I need to watch a lot of sports, so I must have ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. National sporting events are often on broadcast networks NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, so I need those. I love college football, especially my Missouri Tigers, so I have to get the SEC Network, even if it means spending a little more money. And I’m also a news junkie, so CNN has to be available as well.
Those nine channels pretty well encompassed what I need for the sports season at the end of fall and beginning of winter. With that in mind, I could start looking at services such as SlingTV, PlayStation Vue, Direct TV NOW and YouTube TV to see what best fit my needs.
3. What hardware do you need?
Think of hardware as a replacement for the “set-top box” of the cable days of yore. What would you use instead?
I do not have a smart TV. I have a 10-year-old, 42-inch Vizio that cannot connect to the Internet and didn’t reliably connect to my brother’s Xbox when we were kids.
I needed a device that would transform that television into a smart TV and allow me to stream applications, such as SlingTV, PlayStation Vue, the ESPN app (formerly WatchESPN) and Netflix (I’m addicted to “The West Wing”).
On the recommendation of family members, I chose an Amazon FireTV Stick. It was pretty cheap — $35 — and in my mailbox the very next day.
(Disclosure: Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The FireTV Stick plugs into an HDMI socket in the back of your TV and into a power outlet in the wall. Turn on your TV, tune it to the appropriate HDMI channel and the FireTV Stick setup menu pops up right away. Configuring the whole thing took me five minutes.
After downloading the Netflix app, I was streaming in less time than it took me to assemble Ikea furniture (which takes me a concerningly long time, but that’s not the point).
Emailers and Twitter users also recommended Apple TV ($200), Roku ($40) and Google Chromecast ($35). All four devices do basically the same thing, and all have their own bells and whistles. For me, none of them stood out enough to sway me from the price and convenience of the FireTV Stick.
4. With what service will you watch your sports?
It is time to pick a service to watch your sports, and I’ll make it easy. Use this matrix, which lists all the mainstream providers and devices I could find and cross-lists them against all the sports channels and apps you could want. “NS” means “need subscription.”
|Channels/Product||SlingTV||PlayStation Vue||Direct TV NOW||YouTube TV||Antenna||Amazon FireTV Stick||Apple TV||Roku||Chromecast|
|FOX Sports 1/2||extra||yes||extra||yes||NS||NS||NS||NS|
|Big Ten Network||extra||extra||yes|
Sports fans are blessed with the degree of competition in this space. Pay as little as $20 a month for SlingTV or as much as $40 a month for PlayStation Vue, which offers more channels in its base package.
Several emailers and Twitter users suggested purchasing an HDTV antenna, which costs about $20, so you can get the local broadcast channels at no monthly cost.
Also, if you still have access to a cable subscription — maybe a family member or friend gives you access to an account or you (gasp!) share passwords — you can download the NBC, ABC and Fox apps, and stream live programming, including sports.
I went with SlingTV and added a sports package to get the SEC Network and TNT, to watch the NBA. That takes me up to $25 a month. I also have access to those broadcast apps through a family member’s cable subscription (thank you, mom!).
During the fall, I sprung for the CBS app ($10 a month) to watch college football, then dropped it once the season ended. I also recently dropped the SEC Network add-on from SlingTV, because SEC Network games are also on the ESPN app.
In all, here’s what I spent my first month:
- $35 for Amazon FireTV Stick.
- $25 a month for basic SlingTV, plus bonus sports package.
- $10 a month for CBS All-Access (app).
That’s $5 more than the cable bill would have been, but the FireTV Stick is a one-time purchase.
My Vizio TV sits on a bank of cubbies against the wall of my apartment opposite my Internet router. The only wires visible are those for the FireTV Stick and the television. I will find books and tchotchkes to fill up the cubbies so I can’t see them.
5. Don’t be shy. Try a new service.
There is a good to fair chance I will drop SlingTV in the spring and pick up another service that lets me watch my beloved Baltimore Orioles, which aren’t on national television too often.
I’ll probably have to pick up CBS again for a couple months so I can stream NCAA tournament games.
The great thing about all these apps and streaming services is that they’re built to follow you around, unlike cable, which is built to make you huddle around a television. I can download the ESPN or NBC app on my phone or iPad and watch games while I’m out shopping or sitting on the Metro.
“I thought sports would be harder to watch, but it’s really easier than ever,” said Kit Baty, a college football fan in Atlanta with whom I talked on the phone. He uses PlayStation Vue so his kids can watch Disney programs. “There’s more sports than you ever thought.”
So buck up, sports fans. Follow these steps, and cord-cutting won’t be as hard as it looks.