clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Cutting The Cord As A Sports Fan - Part 1: Sling TV

New, 172 comments

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

It's a story told often these days, my experience is no doubt similar to your own. While going through my mail one day, I came to my cable bill and gazed upon the disaster at hand.

That's $87 bucks a month for a TV package that doesn't even include ESPNU. Frankly, I was fed up. I was also not willing to go through the nonsense some people recommend where you call up to "cancel" only to get a discount on your bill. To me, that's just delaying the inevitable, not to mention I've got better things to do with my time than spend and hour on the phone with a service rep. There had to be a better way.

As of this writing, it's been a full month since I've had regular cable TV service and it's been a great experience. Things haven't been perfect, but if you're willing to put in just a little effort, you can save yourself a ton of money. Here's how I did it.

1. Determine your household's priorities

What are you actually using cable TV for? I was almost exclusively using cable to watch live sports and occasionally zone out to a few hours of Law & Order reruns when I need to relax. I keep up with a few series, but I almost always wait until the end of a season and binge watch through Netflix just because I never know if I'm going to be in front of a TV when a show is on, or it might air on a night when a game is on (the glamorous life of a sports blogger, I know.)

Live sports being the priority, I needed to further determine what I actually needed, because just saying "sports" is useless. No one is a "Sports Fan." You are a college team fan, or an NBA fan, or a Premier League soccer fan. You can be multiples of these things, but you're also likely not a fan of some sports as well. So I jotted down a list:

  1. LSU
  2. SEC in general
  3. College teams in general
  4. Astros baseball
  5. Capitals hockey
  6. Saints football
  7. Australian football/rugby
  8. CFL
  9. Baseball in general
  10. NHL in general
  11. NFL in general

Now, this list is going to be unique for everyone. No doubt I have the Saints lower on my list than most people reading this, but the plain fact is I spend my fall Sundays recovering from Saturday's tailgate and catching up on college football games I missed seeing live. The NFL just isnt a draw for me anymore, and even though I still like the Saints in theory, I watched maybe 1 complete Saints game last season and missed most games of their season completely.

For my other pro teams, being an out-of-market fan is actually a benefit to cutting the cord. I was already paying MLB and NHL for their streaming services to watch my team's games. (Yes, this includes subterfuge to watch the Astros in Louisiana on MLB.tv. I will not detail the methods used, you can find that info elsewhere on the internet.)

My main priority, as the Managing Editor of an LSU blog, was of course LSU games. This made my options much clearer as the SEC Network deal has essentially brought all but a few games under one channel's roof. CBS has for 3 seasons now streamed the SEC football and basketball games they air for free via their website and mobile app. The only real loss would be the 3-4 LSU baseball games that Cox Sports TV controls. There is no way to get Cox Sports without having cable service and that's not likely to change any time soon.

It is important to note at this point that your home's needs will be different, probably very different. Does your roommate / significant other care about sports? Do they prefer to watch dramas or comedies live? Would Netflix or another similar service fill those needs? Are they junkies for live cable news outlets? Do you have kids? Are they going to scream bloody murder if the Disney channel goes away? I would say it's important for you to get everyone in your household together to determine your priorities before making a decision.


2. Realize you aren't actually cutting the cord

I have always hated the term "cutting the cord" because it's very inaccurate. Unless you are just cutting TV and internet out of your life altogether, you are still going to pay for an internet service to provide you with the data connection needed to use alternate methods of TV, and in most cases, that will still be your cable company. Due to the needs of my day job, I was already paying for uprated internet service from Cox cable. In my area, DSL just does not offer the speed needed to use these services without stuttering issues, which is a deal breaker. You might have a wireless or satellite solution you trust, and I'd suggest you use what ever works. One of the easiest ways to tell if your internet service is strong enough is to use the WatchESPN service you almost certainly have access to already. Just bring it up on a laptop or one of a dozen devices that you can connect to your TV and see how it handles the load.

Also be aware that depending on your current contract, you may be subject to termination fees for discontinuing your TV service. Be sure to check before you end up with a surprise on your bill.

3. Find your "cable box" replacement

While cutting cable TV is the goal, it doesn't mean trading your flat screen for a laptop monitor as your main viewing device. The options for set top box replacements are wide and varied. They can be as cheap as a chromecast that you would control from a phone or tablet, a Roku/AppleTV/AmazonFire box or similar device, or even today's modern video game consoles. Depending on what fits your situation and how much you've been paying for cable, the device might pay for itself in the savings you get in the first month

4. Understand that, at the moment, there will be growing pains

Part of the reason cable TV is so expensive is that you are paying for the convenience and reliability of it all just working. None of the options I have tried so far are as easy to use as a cable box with a remote, but if you're willing to put forth a little effort, you can save the money you are paying for that convenience.

Also, realize that the only way you are getting local stations (unless you live in a major metro area, more on that at another time) is through an antenna. This has a plus in that it is free, but in the real world it can sometimes be difficult to catch one or more of your local stations.

****

So I took all those options into account. I already had a chromecast and an Xbox One for use as devices, not to mention that I've been hooking up a laptop to my TV via an HDMI cable for various reasons for years. Getting a service that offered the ESPN family of networks, including SEC Network, was Priority One.

The service I settled on was Sling TV. With a base price of $20 a month, plus a $5 charge to add their sports tier that included SEC Network, the price was a fraction of what I was paying, and I was actually getting more of the sports channels that I wanted (remember, I wasn't even getting ESPNU for the $87 I was paying) In addition, Sling TV carries the Turner networks (TNT, TBS, etc) which means I got channels that carried the NCAA basketball tournament (Not that I would have needed it. AMIRITE, disastrous LSU basketball season?)

Sling TV's base package had 23 channels, and the sports addition brought in 7 more. I got every ESPN channel except the Longhorn Network. I also got access to the WatchESPN app I was already using for all of those channels. It's LSU baseball season, so having access to the SECN+ feeds was important, and Sling TV's sports tier included that.

Sling TV itself runs on a desktop app on Windows and Mac, an app on Roku, Amazon Fire devices, and the XBox One, and can be streamed to a chromecast through apps on iOS and Android phones. My experience using Sling varied widely between platforms. The Xbox app was sluggish and choppy, though given that I've had the same issues with the ESPN app on Xbox, I'm willing to chalk that up as an Xbox issue, not Sling's fault. Using the desktop app on my Mac was a much better experience, as was streaming to a chromecast through my phone. The picture quality was great and I rarely had stuttering issues. Switching between channels took about 2-3 seconds longer than it did with my old cable box, but after a week, the delay wasn't noticeable anymore. Sling's on-screen guide interface took a little getting used to, but it was again comparable to your run-of-the-mill cable box interface.

Before I get into the negatives, I want to reiterate that I'm basing my judgement of these services solely on how they fit my needs. Essentially, I was looking for a service that at the least provided access to the WatchESPN platform so I could watch LSU games live. Any other channels and services that it offered were a bonus to me. Your mileage may vary.

Sling TV's biggest problem is, unfortunately, all to do with their rights agreements with the channels they carry, and those rights vary wildly. I should note here that Sling TV offers no DVR-type service of any kind for any channel. You are essentially paying for a live feed of the channels listed and access to those channel's on-demand libraries, which will vary greatly from station to station. For example, a channel like AMC will let you watch on-demand episodes from the current season of the original shows it airs, but none of the movies that air on that station. TNT doesn't have any content you can watch on demand. HGTV and Food Network, on the other hand, have every show they air available on-demand. These options vary from channel to channel. For a service that offers no DVR functionality, this can be a deal breaker. Another limitation caused by this is that you can only use one active stream on a device at a time. That means if you want to watch separate things at the same time, you'll need a separate subscription to sling for each user. Not a problem for me the bachelor, but obviously a big issue for those with more than 1 TV in the house.

Also, the lineup leaves something to be desired. TNT, TBS, and Disney may have the shows you and your family wants, but it might not. Big cable networks like USA and FX aren't available on Sling TV at any price. Neither are the Fox Sports or NBC Sports networks. While Sling TV says they are always looking to expand what they offer, there is no guarantee that they'll ever get the deals done to carry those networks.

****

As purely an LSU fan, Sling TV is all I would ever need. At $25 a month for their base package + sports package, I've got live access to 99% of all LSU games that are broadcast. And since I was already using the WatchESPN app when I had cable, the experience for me barely changed. All I did was just log out and log back in to WatchESPN with a new name and password.

But obviously, the service's limitations in both lineup and functionality may make it a non-starter for some. One thing I can say is that at the least you should give it a try and see for yourself how it performs. One of the great things about many of these type of services that are popping up is that they all offer a free trial of some sort and they don't have any cancelation fees. If I find another service that I like better, it will be no issue to switch.

After a month of living without cable TV, I can honestly say I'd probably be fine with Sling TV as my only TV service. However, new services come along all the time and I'm already testing another option. I hope to make this an ongoing series, so look for another update in about a month. Also, I'll be keeping an eye out in the comments for any questions anybody has. There are obviously some illegal ways to catch almost all live sports over the internet these days, but this is not the place for that. Do not share that kind of info in the comments or I'll have to get out the banhammer.

*Do I need to disclose if there's nothing to disclose? Sling TV did not pay for this post, nor did I get any kind of discount. I paid full price to use the service after their standard 1 week free trial. I got the press photos from their website*