I'm a football fan in New York, but the decision didn't really affect me, as I'm not a Time Warner subscriber. In fact, I don't subscribe to any cable provider: When I moved into my latest apartment I decided to "cut the cord" and go without cable.
It's a decision that's saved me a substantial amount of money on monthly bills, and I've managed to get by with a Netflix subscription and other streaming options. But there's one very big downside of cord-cutting: You can't watch live sports. And now that football season is upon us, I'm weighing the options to determine the most cost-effective strategy for watching football without cable.
Option 1: Watch at a friend's apartment. I call this the "freeloader" option. But it's not exactly free. Because I don't want to be the guy who just mooches off his friends' cable subscriptions, I do feel an obligation to bring over a six-pack of beer or some snacks for every game. That's going to run me in the vicinity of $10 for every weekend, which adds up to about $40 a month -- around what I'd be paying for a shared cable subscription. Still, that's not a big downside: Even if I were watching at home, it's likely that I'd be snacking and having a couple beers. At least this way I'm doing it with friends.
But it's not a consistent option. Not all of my friends are going to be planted on the couch at home every Sunday, and even when they are, they don't necessarily want to have guests. So I'd like to find a way that I can watch at home.
Option 2: Get an antenna. Unlike baseball, which is typically carried by regional cable sports networks, most football games are carried on the networks: CBS or Fox for the Sunday games during the day, and NBC for the Sunday Night Game. That means you can get them over the air with a digital antenna that can get an HD signal, most of which will run you in the $35 to $60 range.
One downside is that you don't get cable channels, which means you can't watch Monday Night Football (which switched from ABC to ESPN in 2006). And another issue is that the signal is inconsistent -- when Consumer Reports tested 10 antennas in July, it found that it couldn't even rank them because each model's performance varied so much. Antenna technology has a come a long way, but like the rabbit ears of old, they're still prone to giving you static at crucial moments.
Option 3: Subscribe to Aereo. During the CBS blackout, Aereo got some attention as an antenna alternative. The service works by receiving network signals at a remote location and then beaming those signals to subscribers, allowing you to get network channels over an Internet connection. Assuming you have a consistent Internet connection, it's less prone to signal disruptions than an antenna in your living room or on your roof. And it also has DVR options, allowing you to pause, rewind and even record the game for later viewing.
I enjoyed using Aereo when I used the free trial month to watch the Stanley Cup Finals earlier this year. And it's reasonably priced at $8 a month, which comes to just $2 per weekend of football. But if you don't mind the lack of DVR functionality and the occasional signal disruption, it's clear that the ordinary antenna is still the more cost-effective investment over the long-term. If I'm going to be without cable for years, it makes more sense to make a one-time antenna purchase for $40 than to continue paying $8 a month every football season.
(UPDATE: Please note that Aereo is only available in five cities for now -- Boston, New York, Atlanta, Miami and Salt Lake City. But it's already announced plans to expand into 18 additional markets. Check the website to see if it's coming to your area.)
Option 4: Get NFL Sunday Ticket (without a subscription!). The options above all share one very big weakness: They don't actually allow me to watch my hometown team. I live in New York, but I'm a New England native, and most New England Patriots games aren't going to be on network TV here. Looking at the schedule, I count five games that are guaranteed to be on the networks in New York -- two against the New York Jets, and three Sunday night games. That's more than displaced fans of most teams can expect, but I still have another 11 games or so where even my friends' cable subscriptions won't let me watch my favorite team.
The only way to get out-of-market games is to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket, which costs $225 per season. Unfortunately, you can only get it if you subscribe to DirecTV, and even if I could get satellite dish reception at my apartment, paying for both cable and the football package would be cost-prohibitive. There are rumors that Google could buy the rights to stream it as a stand-alone service, but for now that's only a distant dream.
But this year, there's a workaround that lets you get Sunday Ticket without signing up for DirecTV. If you buy the anniversary edition of "Madden 25" on Amazon, you'll get a code granting you access to a full season of Sunday Ticket, accessible through your computer or mobile device. For just $99, that's a stellar deal; if you're not interested in the video game, you could even trade it in at a local used game store to get some of your money back. There are a limited number of units available, but for now it's still in stock.
Option 5: Watch at a bar. If I don't go with the "Madden 25" deal, I have one other option for watching out-of-market games: Going to watch at a sports bar. But that doesn't come cheap -- while it's free to watch, you basically have to pay "rent" in the form of ordering drinks. In all likelihood, I'm probably spending at least $20 on beer just for the privilege of watching the game. Over the course of a season, that adds up.
So what's the best bet?
For many games, I'll go to a friend's place to watch. I'll probably also watch a few at local sports bars, because my friends have various rooting interests and we'd like to be able to watch multiple games at once. As for watching at home, I'm still weighing my options. I may just invest in an antenna for my TV, though Aereo may be the better option if I decide that I want to DVR some network TV shows this fall. And that "Madden 25" deal is very enticing.
Which option would work best for you depends a lot on your personal circumstances: Whether you have friends with cable, whether there are good sports bars in the area, and whether you root for an out-of-market team. But know that there are a lot of good options that don't require you to pay for cable.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.