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How to stream college sports without losing your mind

Spoiler alert: It’s complicated.
Billy Steele
07.23.19 in AV
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Thanks to all the services that let you stream live TV, it's easy to watch sports without a commitment to cable. The channel lineups vary, and some are more limited than others. What's more, the television rights for college sports, especially football, are tied to the conference, so you'll need to find out which channels have the deal covering your favorite schools. From there, it's a matter of making sure the service you choose has all the channels you need so you don't miss a game. Lucky for you, we can help.

A word about college sports TV rights

NCAA Men's Final Four - National Championship - Texas Tech v Virginia

Thankfully, there are a lot of college games -- primarily football and basketball -- on major television networks. The downside is most channels require a TV log-in to stream through any apps, even if the game is one of the main networks you can access over the air for free. Of course, if you're a college student, chances are you're using your parents' log-in. Well, at least until you have a place of your own where you have to worry about paying for television. Like other sports, the league negotiates television deals every few years, and in the case of college sports, "the league" is the school's conference.

Disney has the biggest piece of the pie with the ACC, American, Big 12, Big Ten, BYU, C-USA, Liberty, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and Sun Belt all signed on for games on either ABC or ESPN. CBS has a deal with the SEC, which during football season typically means a 3:30 PM "game of the week" with a marquee matchup. It also has agreements for American, Army, C-USA, MAC and Mountain West. Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 also have a deal with Fox, which includes the championship game for the latter two conferences. I'll stop there because it's confusing, and it can be hard to keep up with.

If your team is in any of these conferences, you'll need to pick a streaming option that, at the least, gives you access to ABC, ESPN and Fox. But you'll probably need even more if you want to catch everything. Otherwise, you'll likely miss some games. To make things more convoluted, Notre Dame is independent for football, so it has a solo deal with NBC, but it's only for home games.

In fact, most scheduling is done according to the home team. This is easy to follow during the conference schedule, but for any non-conference games, it can be difficult to know where to look. A good rule of thumb is to find the channel that the home team's conference has a TV deal with. If an SEC school is playing at an ACC school, it's a safe bet that game will be on ABC or ESPN. There are also neutral-site games, typically played in NFL stadiums or other venues that aren't on campus. That throws in another wrinkle, but most of the time these matchups are big enough that they'll be on one of the major networks.

To add further confusion, some conferences have their own networks. The SEC Network and upcoming ACC Network are run by ESPN. Ditto for the University of Texas' Longhorn Network. Fox oversees the Big Ten Network, and the Pac-12 Network is owned (and run) by its member universities. These channels are more supplemental to the major networks and the likes of ESPN. There will be some games on these channels, but the big matchups will be on a major network -- especially during football season. However, if you follow college sports besides football and basketball, you'll want to consider adding them to your streaming budget. The Big Ten Network, for example, shows a lot of wrestling and is typically the place to watch the B1G conference tournament for that particular sport.

To summarize, since college sports are big money (football and basketball in particular), all the networks want a piece. If you only care to watch your favorite team, you'll need a few channels to keep up with every game. If you're a die-hard fan who likes to watch as much as possible, you'll need several channels for that all-you-can-stream buffet.

YouTube TV

YouTube TV

Notable channels: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, NBCSN, CBS Sports, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U, ESPN News, SEC Network, Big Ten Network, Fox Sports (regional), FS1, FS2
Pros: All the channels you'll likely need for big games, free unlimited cloud DVR, simple and easy-to-use interface
Cons: $50/month is a commitment, especially if you're doing so mostly for sports.

This one is my personal favorites. I've been using YouTube TV for about six months now, and I really like it. The interface is simple and easy to use, and there are a lot of handy features -- especially for sports fans. For starters, you can tell it your favorite teams, and every time they're on TV, the service will record the game for you. Speaking of DVR, that's included for free, and you get unlimited storage space too.

YouTube TV also allows up to six accounts per household, so you don't have to worry about someone else's sports loyalties popping up in your list. The service will also let you have three streams going simultaneously, just in case your family couldn't care less about 'Bama v. LSU.

Hulu + Live TV

Hulu

Notable channels: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, NBCSN, CBS Sports, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U, SEC Network, Big Ten Network, FS1
Pros: All the channels you'll likely need for $5 less than YouTube TV, free cloud DVR
Cons: Cloud DVR is limited to 50 hours, and the upgrade ($15/month) is capped at 200 hours.

Hulu has been making a huge live sports push, especially during the NBA playoffs over the past few months. (I'm sure you saw the commercials at some point.) Hulu covers the major channels you'll need for most of the marquee games, but its full roster isn't as extensive as YouTube TV's. Hulu will recommend games based on your favorite teams, and 50 hours of cloud DVR is included in the monthly fee. If you need more, you can splurge for 200 hours with an extra $15 per month.

Hulu is a solid option, especially if you subscribe to its on-demand service. And its channel lineup has all you need to follow the more notable games on the big networks.

Sling TV

Notable channels: Fox (select markets), NBC (select markets), NBCSN, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN 3, FS1, FS2, Fox Sports (select markets), Stadium. SEC Network, Pac-12 Network, ESPN U and ESPN News are available as an add-on.
Pros: A lot of extra sports options, if you're willing to pay for them
Cons: No ABC or CBS; Fox and NBC in select markets; SEC Network, Pac-12 Network, ESPN U and ESPN News cost an extra $10/month; cloud DVR is also an additional purchase

Sling TV was one of the first options for live-television streaming, but there are better options now that the likes of Hulu, YouTube and more are on board. And that's especially true when it comes to sports. Sling doesn't offer access to ABC or CBS, and Fox and NBC are limited to select markets. This means you'll have to get an antenna to watch these over the air -- something Sling is happy to help with. Given the lack of local/big four networks, it's hard to justify the monthly cost here. Plus, you'll also need Sling Blue and Orange to get everything you need. You only save money on Sling when you can survive with one or the other.

What's more, in order to get SEC Network, Pac-12 Network, ESPN U and ESPN News, you'll have to pay $10 more per month for the Sports Extra add-on. Cloud DVR will also cost you an additional $5 per month for 50 hours' worth of storage. You can record multiple shows/events at once, though, if that's an attractive consolation prize.

ESPN+

ESPN+

Pros: So. Much. Content. And all for $5 per month. Access to conferences for football that might not otherwise be on TV in your area, plus coverage of other college sports is quite comprehensive. There's also MLB, pro soccer, MMA and more.
Cons: You won't get the big-name teams when it comes to college football and basketball, but you will get a lot from other conferences.

ESPN's standalone streaming service won't replace a full-on TV subscription. That's mostly because it doesn't offer access to the main ESPN broadcast networks. However, for $5 per month, ESPN+ is a stellar supplement for sports fans who want as much action as they can get. The service is loaded with baseball (MLB), soccer (MLS, Serie A, FA Cup), MMA (UFC) events and a whole lot more. And when it comes to college sports, the options are also robust.

ESPN told Engadget that there will be more than 300 college football games on ESPN+ this season, covering 12 conferences like the Big 12, C-USA, MAC, Sun Belt, WAC and Ivy League. The network also confirmed that all college football games that appear on ESPN+ will also be available for replay on demand. This means if you're a fan of a team that isn't in one of the bigger (read: more popular) conferences, this is likely your best bet for streaming or watching live. There's also a ton of other college sports on the service. I watched a lot of this year's NCAA Baseball Regionals and Super Regionals via ESPN+. You get so much for so little, it's almost silly for a die-hard sports fan not to have this.

It's game time

NCAA Virginia Tech Duke Basketball

I'm all for cutting the cord, but it's difficult to live without live television if you're a sports fan. Cable companies still have a foothold thanks to sports, but you don't have to saddle yourself with that headache in order to follow your team(s). For that reason, live-TV-streaming services like Hulu and YouTube TV are your best options. If you want to shop around further before you commit, be sure any service you consider offers ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox (local channels) in addition to the likes of ESPN and FS1. The games you want to watch likely won't be on the same channel every week, so you need several channels if you want to save yourself some headaches down the road.

Images: Jamie Schwaberow via Getty Images (NCAA Basketball National Championship); Associated Press (ECU vs. NC State and Zion Williamson); YouTube (YouTube TV); Hulu (Hulu menu); Sling TV (Sling TV in-use); ESPN (ESPN+ devices)

Check out our complete 2019 back-to-school guide and find all of our student-friendly buying advice right here!

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