Editor’s Note: This piece was written, submitted and edited before every sporting event was cancelled due to the coronavirus. If you’re looking for older sports to pass the time during quarantine, or just want to hit the ground running once the sports seasons pick back up in however many weeks (or months…), here’s a list of what to consider.
The time of the cable box continues its wind toward the end of its spool thanks to an ever-increasing amount of cord cutters looking to streaming services as more optimal replacements. Lower costs and increased customization continue to be driving forces for the move away from big cable providers, but there’s one unicorn that the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world have that keeps viewers’ attention: live sports.
As society moves away from the concept of appointment television, live sports broadcasts remain the last bastion for required live viewing, forcing networks to dole out record-setting amounts of money for their slice of the relevancy pie. But the streaming world is never far behind. Multiple services with varying levels of name recognition are already carving out their spot, preparing for what keeps looking like the inevitable. Here are the best options available for those who want to get a head start on the future.
CBS is currently the only major television network carrying top-tier sports programming to dip into the streaming market (unless you count ABC’s association with ESPN). CBS All Access’s launch was mostly centered on new iterations of Star Trek, but it also boasts live streams of it’s NFL, PGA and NCAA football and basketball coverage. The TV mega has shown the power of its streaming technology for a number of years now thanks to its outstanding whiparound coverage of March Madness. But CBS All Access’s relevancy in the sports world is limited by having no major sports coverage between April and August. Having the best NFL broadcast team in Tony Romo and Jim Nantz is a feather in their cap though.
YouTube TV $49.99/month, Hulu $54.99/month
YouTube and Hulu’s live TV services remain neck-and-neck as the best option overall for anyone looking to free themselves of the ol’ black box. But both lag a little bit behind when you zoom in the athletic microscope. Both include a number of sports channels and major networks with hefty sports packages in their base levels, but neither cater to the sports fans looking exclusively for a live sports supplement. Their hefty price tags deliver plenty of programming options across all genres while remaining a sizeable barrier to entry for those simply looking to catch a random NBA on TNT broadcast.
League Pass $149.99/year, Single Team Pass $119.99/year
This is where it gets fun. Where we dive into the gritty underbelly of sports fandom. Plenty of sports fans have their favorite sports to follow, some in excruciating detail. Hockey has become one of those sports that feels like you have to hold a high personal investment in order to get the most joy out of watching it. And NHL.TV offers the best option for diehard fans who can’t make it to the rink nightly. The service offers packages with access to broadcasts of every NHL team alongside single team packages that allow users to watch all of their favorite team’s contests. The high price tags may scare some off, but the service lowers those costs as the season goes on, making fan buy-in much more desirable as playoff season approaches.
League Pass $99.99/year, Single Team Pass $59.99/year
Much like NHL.TV, the NBA offers its own service specifically tailored to NBA fans of varying levels of interest. The $100 League Pass opens up every NBA game played that season for viewers while single team plans come in at a cool $60. Both of those plans also include access to the NBA TV network’s wall-to-wall league analysis. It even boasts a commercial-free version of its League Pass for an additional $25 per year. You can ever get NBA programming delivered in virtual reality for a one-time $50 fee. They literally have every viewing avenue covered.
League Pass $121.99/year, Single Team Pass $93.99/year
Rounding out the services paired to specific major sports organizations is MLB.TV. Despite baseball’s old-fashioned reputation, MLB.TV was a digital pioneer, launching the first streaming video subscription service in 2003, a few years before even YouTube existed. The company that created it has gone on to build many of the services that have launched since, including HBO Now, ESPN+, the WWE Network, and more. A subscription opens up all out-of-market games for either every MLB or a single team, making it easy to follow the action through all the dog days of summer. Users also get access to spring training games and archives for all games from the given season.
Before the Hulu-level of financial commitment scares you off, you really have to dig into the vast array of sports programming FuboTV packs into that hefty hit to your wallet. FuboTV delivers access to nearly all globally-popular sports with cricket being the only notable exclusion. There are channels dedicated solely to tennis, soccer, cycling and combat sports alongside familiar networks and their coverage of major organizations like the NFL and NBA. Like Hulu and YouTube TV, FuboTV also includes a robust channel lineup beyond sports, but isn’t available to use on as many streaming devices as the big boys. Fubo is a great option for those engrossed in sports beyond America’s top 5, but it can be a bit of a hard sell regardless. Especially if your local affiliates aren’t supported by the service. Not having ESPN is another huge hit.
The UFC is the dominant name in combat sports globally and has been for some time. The company’s rise came at the cost of other prominent promotions, most notably PRIDE, Strikeforce and WEC. Luckily, those memorable companies are immortalized within UFC Fight Pass alongside live fights in multiple disciplines and replays of UFC pay-per-view cards. The service also packs in original programming featuring in-depth analysis and revisiting memorable moments in combat sports history. You won’t get the cream of UFC’s live programming with a subscription, but this one is a must for longtime and hardcore UFC fans.
Free & Pay-Per-View
If UFC Fight Pass is your passport to the most popular moments and matchups in combat sports history, FiteTV provides a descending staircase for those wanting to delve even deeper into the world of combat sports. FiteTV is the home for myriad combat sports, boxing and pro wrestling companies, hosting free programming and pay=per-view events alike. Users can find nearly anything from the reemerging bare knuckle fighting scene to Uncanny Attractions’ unique mix of pro wrestling and drag on the site. Finding marquee superstars on FiteTV events is few and far between, but those wanting to find the next up-and-comer or explore niches within combat sports won’t find a better platform than FiteTV.
DAZN took shape as an alternative to the traditional pay-per-view model that built boxing and mixed martial arts into lucrative cultural touchstones. The service looks to reinvent the game with a subscription model, both monthly and yearly, that provides exclusive access to some of the top boxers going today such as Canelo Alvarez and Anthony Joshua. The service expanded to include MLB coverage, Bellator MMA events and the behind-the-scenes boxing docuseries 40 Days. DAZN continues to carve out it’s place as a go-to source for boxing and combat sports, but don’t expect it to stand pat, especially as the streaming rush creates more desire for added content.
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without the worldwide leader. ESPN’s leap into the streaming landscape came after a long test run with its WatchESPN app (which is still available in certain places apparently?). But ESPN+ is so much more than a simple simulcast. Nearly any sport of any popularity is featured on the service along with the NFL, NBA and MLB coverage ESPN fans recognize. The service also houses the extensive 30 For 30 documentary film series, perhaps the best collection of such films in the past 20 years. The addition of UFC last year and an exclusive contract with champion boxer Tyson Fury infused the service with popular combat sports programming, though those events carry a separate pay-per-view price tag. Being under the Disney umbrella doesn’t hurt either. A $12.99/month bundle deal with fellow Disney-owned streaming services Disney+ and Hulu makes ESPN+ one of the easiest sells in the sports streaming world.
Brian Bell is a queer freelance writer covering tech, pro wrestling, esports, games, comics and TV. Co-host of the Mr. Videogames Super Show podcast. Find and follow him on Twitter @WonderboyOTM.