PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The NFL absolutely does not care whether you cut the cord. It gets paid either way.
The beautiful part of the National Football League's business plan is that, with few exceptions, it does everything it can to take everyone's money. Do you watch sports only through the networks? It's charging NBC, CBS and Fox $1 billion a year through 2022 for the broadcast rights to its games, not including the $275 million it took from CBS to broadcast Thursday Night Football this year.
Prefer Monday Night Football? That's costing ESPN $1.9 billion a year. Want as much as you can get in one sitting? DirecTV pays $1 billion a year for exclusive rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket package of out-of-town games, through that ends next year.
If you really don't want to pay extra fees for cable or satellite television service, however, the NFL is remarkably cool with that too. It has positioned itself in such a way that the overwhelming majority of its games are available without having to subscribe to a single channel. There's a chance you'll miss the occasional NFL Network game here or there, but if it features a team in your market, the NFL is forced to simulcast it on a local affiliate.
The NFL knows that sports make up a huge part of the average monthly cable and satellite bill, and it has no interest in giving the middlemen at the networks anything more than they're already getting. According to media research firm SNL Kagan, sports channels made up $947.6 million – or roughly 17% – of the $5.5 billion multichannel television industry in 1995. By 2012, sports channels took in $15.3 billion – or a whopping 38% -- of the overall $40.3 billion multichannel take. The earning power of the only other category that even came close, general variety channels such as TBS and AMC, grew from $820 million to $5.5 billion over the same span, but dropped from nearly equivalent to sports to roughly a third of that genre's value.
Meanwhile, sports now accounts for nearly two out of every five dollars spent on pay television. Its monthly cost has risen as well. In 1995, the average monthly cable bill was $6.83, $1.17 of which went to sports channels. That's still a hefty 16%, but it lagged behind the $2.82 movie channels charged at the time. Now that $1.17 spent on sports wouldn't even cover 20% of the cost of ESPN alone.
Of the average $34 spent each month on multichannel television, nearly $13 pays for sports channels. That's 38% of the average cable bill, though sports are on only 14 of the average 94 channels offered by multichannel providers. On top of that, Nielsen estimates that only 20% of all multichannel viewing time is spent watching sports. Nobody is making out in that deal.
Considering that it wants as much influence as possible when it tries to black out a team's non-sold-out home games in its local coverage area -- and that it's not really interested in putting money in anyone's pockets other than its own -- it's in the NFL's best interest to keep giving Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network and others as small a portion of its business as possible.
If you want to cut the cord and still watch the NFL, the league is more than happy to hand you some shears and electrical gloves. Here are just a few of the options available:
The old antenna: As we mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of the NFL's games are still on network television. If you're OK with staying within the local market for coverage, you'll get Fox and CBS' games of the week, NBC's Sunday Night Football and CBS' Thursday Night Football via antenna.
Now the antenna can still get a little tricky, especially if you're living in a fairly remote location, but if you're in a city within short range of affiliates, a $7 generic antenna will get you there. If you're a bit more remote, amplified indoor flat antennas will run you about $15 to $70, while outdoor antennas can run from $40 to $160 (not including a preamplifier for weak-signal areas).
The digital conversion didn't help matters for folks in fringe broadcast areas, but the right equipment will get games into your home with one purchase instead of an onerous monthly subscription.
NFL Mobile: The great news is that for $5 a month on top of your current data plan, you can stream a whole lot of NFL games to your wireless devices.
The bad news is that it's available only to Verizon Wireless customers, and even then only through smartphones and tablets. Try to hook an HDMI cable to your device or connect to a TV through Chromecast or AirPlay and you're out of luck. That said, if you have a compatible tablet with a huge display, you'll have access to all the CBS and NBC Sunday games, Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, NFL Network broadcasts and the NFL RedZone Channel.
Fox wanted no part of this, which isn't exactly surprising since it has the most frustrating streaming policy in the NFL. It'll stream games only through its Fox Sports Go app, and only for fans who subscribe to AT&T U-Verse, Cablevision's Optimum, Comcast's Xfinity, Midcontinent Communications, Suddenlink and Wow cable systems. Even ESPN doesn't restrict Monday Night Football to its WatchESPN app or to subscribers
That's 16 games, plus a Wild Card playoff game and the Pro Bowl, which comes out to little less than $3 per game. If that's about what you're willing to pay, ESPN's world of football is yours.
Streaming apps: NBC and CBS apps will allow you to stream games for free as long as you have an Internet connection, which is no small deal.
ESPN, meanwhile, requires users to have a cable or satellite subscription to stream Monday Night Football through its Watch ESPN app -- unless they own Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Xbox One game consoles. Then, with a one-time $50 subscription to XBox Live Gold, they can watch every Monday Night Football matchup they want. If they own an Xbox One, they get access to NFL Network games as well.
NFL Sunday Ticket: Yes, DirecTV will sell you NFL Sunday Ticket without a full satellite subscription. No, it won't be cheap.
DirecTV just began offering a $200 version of Sunday Ticket that allows buyers to access games, the RedZone Channel, a fantasy football channel, a channel of 30-minute condensed games and more through their laptop or desktop. That last option is especially great, considering there are a few ways to use a USB connection to broadcast Sunday Ticket games on your television or use Google's Chromecast to do the work for you.
But if you want to be able to access Sunday Ticket through your smartphone and tablet as well, you're going to have to spring for the full $330 price of DirecTV's full Sunday Ticket MAX package. Yes, it's steep, but considering you'd pay that much for it even if you were subscribing to DirecTV -- the promotional rate for a year of service is $360, but that's contingent on a two-year contract with an inflated rate for the second year -- it's still somewhat of a bargain.
Besides, there are other loopholes. It's a bit less ($200) for full mobile streaming if you live in a building with no DirecTV access, but DirecTV charges more ($230) if you choose to stream NFL games through a game console such as Microsoft's XBox One or Sony's PlayStation 4.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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