Basketball without cable: A cord-cutter's guide to the NBA

Basketball without cable: A cord-cutter's guide to the NBA

We’re barely a week into the 2016-17 NBA season and already the hyperbole is at a fever pitch. Can the Warriors win 75 games, breaking the single-season record they set just a few months ago? Will Lebron James win a fifth MVP award to tie Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Michael Jordan? And who will be the sleeper team to shock everybody—the Minnesota Timberwolves? The Utah Jazz?

Despite sports media’s love for speculation, the answers can only be found by watching the games. And that can be tough to do if you’re a cord cutter. As with baseball, televised basketball has become a primarily cable-only affair. This season, nationally televised games will be split among ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, and ABC. If you’re a “big game” hunter, there are a few ways to catch these broadcasts without a cable-TV subscription.

The outlook is grimmer if you’re mainly interested in following your local team through the season. Most teams’ regular season games are carried by regional cable sports networks like Fox Sports and Comcast SportsNet, which are inaccessible online without cable credentials. 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.

Over the air

The good news is you can access ABC for free if you have a digital antenna and are within the radius of a local ABC affiliate. The bad news is the network only broadcasts 19 of this year’s 165 nationally televised games. These, however, include some of the league’s biggest matchups, such as the Oklahoma Thunder vs. Houston Rockets on March 26 and a Christmas Day rematch between the two-time NBA finalists Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. ABC also carries portions of the postseason, including all of the NBA championship series.

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You can watch nationally televised games on ABC for free over the air.

If you can’t access an ABC channel over the air, you may still be able to watch these games with one of the subscription options that follow.

Sling TV

The easiest way to catch all nationally televised NBA games is with the Sling TV streaming service, but you’ll have to pony up for a monthly subscription. For $20 per month, Sling’s Orange package will get you ESPN, ESPN2, and TNT.

It also gets you access ESPN3, which streams the ABC games. Just download the WatchESPN app— it’s available for most streaming devices, operating systems, and game consoles—and login with your Sling TV credentials.

PlayStation Vue

A year ago, PlayStation Vue was only an option if you owned a PS3 or PlayStation 4 game console. However, it has since beefed up its options, expanding both its package offerings and the platforms it’s available on, making it a viable alternative to Sling TV.

Pricing depends on where you live, though. Live feeds from the major networks—including ABC—are only available in select markets. If you’re fortunate enough to live in one, you can buy the Access channel bundle, which includes ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and TNT for $40 a month. If you don’t live in one of these markets—and most people don’t—you’ll need the Access Slim bundle. It gives you those same four channels for just $20 a month, but you only get on-demand programming from ABC. But as with Sling TV, you can log in to WatchESPN with your Vue credentials to watch the ABC game broadcasts live.

It’s also worth noting that you get more channels overall with Vue’s package than with Sling TVs—more than 60 with Vue to Sling TV’s 25-plus—and that may factor into your decision if you plan to use a streaming service for more than watching basketball. To see which Vue Access package is available in your area, enter your zip code on the website.

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 five monthly installments of $45, you can watch every live out-of-market game that isn’t being broadcast nationally on one of the four networks we’ve mentioned.

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With an NBA League Pass subscription, you can stream live out-of-market games to your TV, computer, or mobile device.

A League Pass subscription allows you to watch up to four games at once in HD and works on computers, tablets, smartphones, and streaming devices. Games originally broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, and ABC are available 24 hours after completion in the video archives. You also get anytime access to a curated selection of “classic” games.

NBA Team Pass

Two bills is a big investment if you only want to follow your favorite team, though. Take a look at NBA Team Pass: For $120 a year or five $27 installments, 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 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 isn’t necessarily defined by your town’s city limits; however. 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.”

What that means is 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 league’s Blackout Explorer 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 that want to follow their team continue to be left on the bench. Change could be on the horizon though; Sling TV recently announced that it will soon add Comcast SportsNet to its lineup in select areas. Once that happens, perhaps other regional sports networks will follow. Until then, you might want to dust off your radio.

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