Thanks to the consumer trend of canceling cable subscriptions and the costliness of DirecTV's Sunday Ticket, watching NFL games on unauthorized Internet feeds is an increasingly attractive option. The NFL forbids it. Jon Bois does it anyway.
"Cord-cutters" is the preferred buzzword for people who cancel their cable subscriptions and rely on the Internet for everything they want to watch. I'm one of them, and as it turns out, there are a lot of us.
Is it worth it? Well, the experience is sort of a mixed bag. Netflix and MLB.tv are terrific services, to name two examples. The NFL, on the other hand, lags far behind.
I don't have access to revenue figures, but it's reasonable to assume that by and large, sufficient incentives exist for networks to broadcast sporting events for free online. If it weren't, then surely the U.S. Open final would not have been available for online viewing. ESPN3, which broadcasts all manner of sporting events, would not exist. CBS Sports wouldn't bother to offer video feeds.
For this, I think the powers that be in sports broadcasting deserve some respect, especially considering their existence within the antediluvian cocoon that is the television industry. From its inability to produce meaningful journalism to its stubborn unwillingness to allow customers to select channels a la carte... well, in short, 98 percent of it is a product I don't want to pay for, and so I don't. So don't more and more people who have decided that they can see and hear everything they want online.
This includes unauthorized video feeds of NFL games. Some of you probably watch these. The NFL certainly doesn't want me to watch them, but I do on a weekly basis, and I plan to until a reasonable alternative exists.
The most obvious alternative at my disposal is to sign a two-year agreement with DirecTV, and in doing so receive Sunday Ticket for free this season. That's asking me to pay a minimum total of $800 in order to get Sunday Ticket, which... from a certain perspective, isn't that completely insane? If I'm trying to watch every game on my favorite team's schedule, I get it free if I live over there, but I have to pay a 1990 Corolla's worth to watch it over here?
I don't reckon that to be a reasonable alternative.
THE STATE OF LIVE NFL VIDEO FEEDS, AS THEY EXIST TODAY
By and large, NBC Sports does a terrific job of broadcasting its Sunday Night Football game over the Internet (more on them later). Despite carrying Monday Night Football on ESPN, it doesn't simulcast the game over ESPN3, or at least it didn't in Week 1.
Neither CBS nor Fox, the two networks that broadcast Sunday afternoon games, offer online video feeds, which relegates online broadcast availability to the bootleg feeds.
I won't link to these feeds here, but they're free, and they're improving in quality and availability with each passing season. Of course, there are negatives. These are the two major drawbacks to bootleg streams:
The video quality. Three or four years ago, the quality of bootleg NFL feeds was absolutely miserable. Today, the picture quality is considerably better, and most streams you run into will deliver a pretty smooth feed. But while the quality is watchable, it usually pales in comparison to what you can see on a TV broadcast.
If you have the means to connect your computer to your TV, great, but the inferior picture quality will be especially apparent.
The quality of the sites that embed the video. Sometimes these sites are poorly-designed, contain pop-up ads that you have to click out of once every few minutes, et cetera. Though this isn't nearly the problem it used to be, some of these sites are sort of sketchy, and your machine can end up with adware and/or malware.
Personally, I'm not terribly concerned by the threat of malware, because I know my way around a computer well enough to get rid of it if ever pops up. (Again, that's an if -- most of the streaming sites I come across these days have never given me any problem.)
And as far as the video quality is concerned... well, as I said, it's usually perfectly watchable. Moreover, as evidenced by everyone you know who gladly pays $150 a year for Netflix but doesn't own a Blu-Ray player, programming choices are more important to a lot of people than the quality of the broadcast.
HOW LIVE NFL FEEDS SHOULD WORK
There are a couple of solutions I can propose, the first being that CBS, Fox, and ESPN decide to stream every single game online for free. In other words, follow the example set by NBC Sports' Sunday Night Football stream. Their viewer experience isn't perfect -- they play the same four or five commercials endlessly and you have to X out their Twitter sidebar every time the broadcast returns from commercial break -- but it's still very good. The picture is fine, and the entire process is convenient.
If that isn't good enough for the NFL and its networks, that's understandable -- after all, I can't watch every baseball or NBA game without purchasing a premium service. In this case, the NFL could follow the model of these leagues. I pay $25 a month in order to watch baseball games online via MLB.tv. I consider that to be a reasonable figure.
Considering that the NFL plays 10 percent as many games, $25 a month might be a little steep for an NFL equivalent... but to be honest, I would pay it.
WHY IT DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY
A web streaming service for the NFL already exists. The problem is, it's called "NFL Sunday Ticket To-Go," and it requires purchase of Sunday Ticket, in addition to another charge for the "To-Go" service.
This can't possibly be construed as a good deal for the consumer who doesn't want cable, because DirecTV is piggybacking loads of programming we don't want onto the one service we do want. That's understandable, and even "fine," because DirecTV is a business with the mandate of making as much money as possible.
In a similar spirit, my interests lie in saving money, and that's why I'm going to continue watching bootlegged NFL broadcasts. As a consequence, the bootleggers are getting the ad revenue -- revenue that could be collected by the League or its broadcast partners. In the absence of an alternative, that's the way it's going to stay.