Even as most entertainment is now being delivered on-demand, with some TV shows releasing entire seasons at once, there is still one reason left to watch live television: Sports.
Unfortunately, sports are broadcast across a bunch of different channels in the U.S., with some available free over-the-air and some requiring paid cable subscriptions. Each one of those networks has its own official streaming app but it’s not exactly great news for cord-cutters. You’ll load up your Roku or Chromecast with all of these apps and wonder how this is actually better than just paying for cable. Then you’ll realize that you actually need a cable subscription to use most of them. Womp womp.
Factoring in ease of access, streaming quality, and content offerings, these are the four sports streaming apps to watch, ranked from best to worst.
Cable login required: Yes
Streaming quality: Excellent
Best for: College football and basketball, NBA playoffs, MLS
Bonuses: Tons of ESPN3 streams you won’t find on TV, plus sports that air on ABC
ESPN fashions itself as “the worldwide leader in sports” and, debatable as that claim might be, its streaming app is the standard-bearer right now in a lot of ways. Yes, it’s a bummer that you need to log into a cable or satellite provider, but them’s the breaks when it comes to legally streaming sports. Maybe you have friends, or parents, or parents of friends who can help you out with that.
Provided your connection is solid, ESPN’s streams come in broadcast quality, with a 60 frames per second frame rate that makes sports look as smooth as they’re supposed to. You get access to all of its sister networks (i.e., ESPN2, ESPNU, etc.) as well as a bunch of ESPN3-branded streams for games that probably wouldn’t make it onto regular TV, at least not nationally. And anything that airs on ABC (e.g., some college football and NBA games) is also available.
ESPN pays for the rights to air a bunch of different sports, making this the most diverse offering among all these apps. You’ll get a few NBA games per week in the regular season as well as some playoff games and the entire NBA Finals. The WNBA has also traditionally been featured on ESPN. Men’s and women’s college basketball both have a home here, as do occasional MLB and NFL primetime games. Major League Soccer also broadcasts games on ESPN, if that’s your thing. And NHL hockey looks to have more of a presence on ESPN going forward, too.
I guess it makes sense that a network dedicated solely to sports is good at streaming sports.
Cable login required: Yes
Streaming quality: Excellent
Best for: NFL, MLB, MLS, NASCAR, some college sports
Bonuses: Big Ten Network coverage
The dedicated Fox Sports app is very similar to ESPN in both function and performance. Log in with a valid cable provider and you’ll have instant access to any live sports in the Fox broadcast family. The stream quality is indistinguishable from what you get on TV.
Unlike ESPN, the selection here is a little more limited. The NBA has no real presence on Fox whatsoever, for example. But you’ll get Sunday NFL games on your local Fox affiliate as well as any playoff games Fox airs, including the Super Bowl (when it has the rights). Major League Baseball is bigger on Fox than on ESPN, with plenty of regular and postseason games airing on this app, including the World Series every year.
Beyond that, NASCAR gets plenty of coverage here. Some MLS matches make their way to Fox, too. This app also includes the Big Ten Network, which comes in real handy during football season if you’re from the hearty midwest like I am. (Sometimes I just have to watch Michigan and Iowa play the most boring football on the planet on the way to a 10-3 final score. It keeps me centered.)
Cable login required: No
Streaming quality: Excellent…when it works
Best for: NFL, college basketball, golf, UEFA Champions League
Bonuses: Everything else that’s on Paramount Plus
Paramount Plus is a little out of place here because it’s not just a dedicated app for one network’s sports broadcasts like ESPN and Fox Sports are. This is a streaming service for everything in the broader CBS family, including live sports, original shows, and movies. It doesn’t ask for a cable login, but you will need to pay at least $10 per month to unlock the live TV streaming feature.
Once you do that, Paramount Plus will air your local CBS station, which is great for football fans. Tons of NFL regular season and postseason games air on CBS, including the Super Bowl once every few years. The men’s college basketball tournament (you probably know it as March Madness) is also the domain of CBS. Golf and European soccer fans can also get their fixes with broadcasts of The Masters and the UEFA Champions League each year.
My biggest complaint has to do with stability. Streams look great, but aren’t always stable. There was at least one NFL playoff game this year where I had to restart the app several times because the stream kept freezing. Not ideal.
But when a game isn’t on, you can watch Spongebob or the Mission Impossible movies. Not a bad deal, really.
Cable login required: Yes for NBC Sports; no for Peacock
Price: $5/mo for Peacock
Streaming quality: Poor/inconsistent
Best for: NFL, Olympics, Notre Dame sports, Premier League soccer
Bonuses: Anything that’s on Peacock
Ahhh, NBC. My sports streaming nemesis for so many years. Ever since I moved to New York and became a full-time cord-cutter, NBC has consistently been a thorn in my side as an NFL fan. Sunday Night Football is often the biggest game of the week, but the standalone NBC Sports app has never streamed sports at 60 frames per second, capping at around 30 instead. I had to watch the Super Bowl that way this year. It simply looks wrong.
It’d be understandable if the app was free for all, but you have to use a cable login to even access these lower-quality streams. The one potential saving grace here is that NBC also streams sports through its Peacock streaming service. You need to pay at least $5 per month to access those streams and some recent Reddit posts indicate that, on at least some devices, Peacock can stream at the correct frame rate now. I have yet to watch live sports on Peacock so I can’t verify that myself.
There are things to like about NBC’s offering on Peacock, though. Every Olympics airs there and paying $5 for Peacock is by far the easiest and cheapest way to see all the events at your leisure. Notre Dame home football games also air on NBC. It’s an odd arrangement that puts Fighting Irish games on a national TV network that doesn’t really air any other college football games.
I’ll also point out that Notre Dame hasn’t won or seriously competed for a national championship since before I was born. But hey, maybe you feel differently and NBC Sports/Peacock serves your needs here. English Premier League soccer also airs on Peacock here in the States, for all you footy fans.
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