Kevin Watterson is an interesting test case for a new model of sports fan.
As hundreds of thousands of Americans give up cable or satellite TV every year — watching their favorite shows on streaming devices such as Hulu or Netflix and earning the trendy name “cord cutters” — sports fans are being left behind, feeling chained to their expensive menu of channels because not enough alternatives exist outside of conventional methods.
Watterson, 34, lives in Minneapolis and considers himself a sports fan. But he ditched cable in 2013, fed up with his $120 monthly Comcast bill — which covered cable and Internet, but was soon to increase in price after the end of a discounted promotional period.
Today, he pays $130 a year for the MLB.TV package, streaming games onto his large screen via Apple TV, a $69 device. He watches other sports available over the air, via an HD antenna that can cost $40 or less. And he’s planning on picking up Sling TV, a new $20-a-month service that gives viewers a limited menu of channels, including ESPN and ESPN2, during April so he can watch the Masters.
“Everything else, I can pretty much piece together,” said Watterson, who works in public relations.
He’s saving money and no longer paying for channels he doesn’t watch.
But there are trade-offs for sports fans who try to cut the cord.
The sheer volume of sports on TV this past weekend — 23 men’s college basketball games Saturday on seven different channels, plus myriad other sports on eight other channels — gives die-hard fans able to afford a three-digit monthly bill more sports than ever, delivered in high-definition through massive screens.
If you live in Minnesota and want to regularly watch the Twins, Wild, Wolves or Gophers sports, it’s nearly impossible to cut your cord because their games — which are shown on regional sports networks like Fox Sports North and Big Ten Network — are not available locally without cable or satellite.
And with many pro and college TV contracts extending for many years into the future for millions (or billions) of dollars, it’s hard to imagine much will change in the near-term.
Still, the existence of entire pro league packages available without traditional cable, combined with emerging slimmed-down packages and other streaming methods that test a gray area of what is legally and morally acceptable, make it possible for a sports fan to cut the cord.
Sports are big business for cable companies like Comcast and satellite providers like DirecTV and Dish. In a world of DVRs and Netflix, live sports are often consumed in real time — as are the commercials that go with them.
“Sports is the last must-see-TV. You can watch everything else on demand,” said Dave Warner, 43, a recent sports fan cord cutter who analyzes TV sports trends on the website whatyoupayforsports.com.
But each channel costs something. ESPN and ESPN2 combined, for instance, make up a little over $6 on your monthly bill, Warner said. Other channels are a couple of dollars here, a few dollars there. It adds up — as providers, networks and fans know.
“It’s going to be a while until cord cutting really makes [networks] nervous,” Warner said. “They see it, but it’s not enough to truly impact their bottom line. For now, the networks are going to milk the cash cow for all its worth, and they will until nobody can afford it anymore.”
Providers are starting to get a little skittish, at least. Comcast granted an interview with a high-ranking official for this story but only for background information.
Dish did not respond to multiple interview requests, while DirecTV did not make anyone available.
All three providers have increased their streaming options and are looking for ways to reach new audiences, but the outlook is grim. The Wall Street Journal reported that in the third quarter of 2014, there was a net loss of 179,000 pay-TV customers in the U.S., more than double the number that gave up pay TV in the same quarter of 2013.
In the same story, DirecTV President and CEO Mike White is quoted from an earnings conference call as saying those canceling their service are “mentioning price-value, and I see more of them claiming they’re going to no pay TV.”
Sling TV — not to be confused with a Slingbox, a device that sends a stream of your own TV to another device and has been around for years — made its debut in February and boasted 100,000 users in its first month.
Launched by Dish, Sling TV costs $20 a month with no contract. Viewers get 16 channels streamed through a device like a Roku or an Amazon Fire TV onto their screen.
Among those offerings: dedicated sports channels ESPN and ESPN2; TNT and TBS, which have high-profile sports including the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; and high-demand non-sports channels such as AMC and HGTV.
Apple reportedly plans to debut a similar product later this year, offering a small bundle of channels streamed through Apple TV that will include most over-the-air networks, ESPN, and other channels for $30 to $40 a month.
Both Sling TV and the new Apple offering seem specifically marketed at people like Jeff Schmidt, 22, who works in the Southwest Minnesota State athletic department and does not have cable even though he describes himself as a sports fan.
Schmidt said he is intrigued by Sling TV. Traditional cable or satellite? Not so much.
“In my position now, it’s more of a cost thing and even a bit of a time thing,” he said. “I work a lot of nights and I’m not at my apartment half the time. It’s just not worth it.”
Watterson said he would try Sling TV during months that ESPN carries events he really cares about, such as the Masters and Wimbledon.
Warner calls Sling TV an “interesting compromise,” noting that for certain types of sports fans on a budget it could be a great option. “If you’re a basketball fan, Sling TV is actually a fantastic deal,” he said.
The downside, though, is that regional networks such as Fox Sports North and major networks like NBC are not included, and you still need to pay for Internet separately to get it.
Still, it comes closer to approaching what many viewers crave and complain they can’t find — reasonable a la carte pricing for channels they actually want — than many other options.
No perfect option
Some sports fans surveyed for this story who have ditched cable said they simply keep up with sports by reading websites or checking Twitter. Others, though, delve into a few different legal and/or ethical gray areas — reminiscent of the early days of music downloading — to watch sports.
One way is to get an online password from a friend or relative who has cable or satellite and use that to stream channels. Even Warner, a self-proclaimed cord cutter, freely admits he streams sports using his mother’s password.
Comcast acknowledged that it monitors password sharers but that it doesn’t deem the problem to be widespread.
Some fans ditch cable and buy a streaming package of NHL, MLB or NBA games, but they will find that the games of the team in their home market are unavailable because of blackout rules.
Indeed, it would be easier to ditch cable for a Minnesota fan living in Arizona than one living in Minneapolis. However, there are ways to circumvent blackout rules by making it seem like a fan’s computer’s IP address is coming from a distant place, enabling access to in-market games.
Still others fans will find pirated streams of games to watch online, hoping along the way their computer doesn’t acquire unwanted viruses.
In essence, a sports fan who cares about watching games at home will need to make sacrifices, or sacrifice morals, to cut the cord.
Even Watterson acknowledges that there is one temptation that could cause him to reattach the cord.
“The only way I would get it back,” Watterson said, “is if the Twins were worth watching.”