By Chris Brantner
Whether you’re a casual or die-hard fan, the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament is one of the biggest events in all of sports — in fact, it takes in more advertising revenue than even the Super Bowl. They call it March Madness for a reason, since it brings some of the most exciting and dramatic games you’ll likely see all year long.
Like other huge, spread-out sporting events — think the Olympics and World Cup — the games sometimes overlap and will be broadcast across multiple TV networks. This used to mean you needed to pay for an overpriced cable subscription if you wanted to keep up with your brackets and watch all the March Madness games, but now you have plenty of options to watch the tourney without cable.
However, since the games are spread out on several channels — CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV — it can still be a little confusing. (You can see the full tournament broadcast schedule here and plan which games you most want to watch.) To help you get ready for the Big Dance, let’s take a look at all the tools and services that can help you watch.
The Classic Antenna
A basic TV antenna is one of the best and cheapest ways to watch any of the March Madness games broadcast on CBS. A full 24 games — including all the Final Four games and championship match-up — are on CBS, that’s a pretty big win for those looking to watch on the cheap.
TV antennas aren’t what they used to be — gone are the days of fighting static or wrapping foil around rabbit ears. The new antennas are high-tech devices that offer a wide range of bonuses and benefits like varying reception ranges and aesthetic designs that won’t be an eyesore in your living room. Plus, they can pull in free, high-definition signals from the major networks in your area, like CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX. These channels even come in with a perfectly clear, HD picture. You can check here to find an antenna that will pick up CBS in your location.
CBS All Access
In response to the growing desire to stream live TV and sports, CBS launched its own standalone streaming service, CBS All Access. This lets you live stream everything that the CBS network is broadcasting in your area (currently in 150 markets, listed here). Obviously, this means the service will let you watch every single March Madness game broadcast by CBS during the tournament.
Yes, you can receive CBS broadcasts for free with a simple TV antenna, as mentioned above. But if you live too far from the broadcast tower, or want to watch on a mobile device or browse on-demand archives, the service only costs $5.99 per month to start (you can even stream without commercials for $9.99 per month). You’ll get tons of live TV, and access to a huge on-demand library as well. You can try the service free for seven days — meaning you could use it to stream the most important games of the tournament for free.
March Madness Live
The NCAA’s March Madness Live app lets anyone watch all of the tournament games broadcast by CBS for free. The only hang up is that you can either watch on the app with your phone or tablet, or on the March Madness live website on your computer. Unlike CBS All Access, you can’t stream it to your TV. (Editor’s note: In the past, I’ve been able to mirror the NCAA stream from my laptop’s Chrome browser to my TV using a Google Chromecast. –JG)
All of the games broadcast on TNT, TBS, and truTV are also available on the app, but you’ll need a valid cable login to watch them. So the only way to do that for free would be to borrow a login from a friend or family member.
Sony’s streaming service, PlayStation Vue, can function as a full cable alternative. Depending on your location, it could be the only service you’d need to watch the entire NCAA tournament without cable. That’s because TBS, TNT, and truTV are all available to Vue subscribers nationwide, and CBS is available in 80 markets (listed here) throughout the U.S.
If you’re trying to simplify while not spending too much money, PlayStation Vue might be your top choice. The service only costs $29.99 per month in most markets — and you can also test it out free for a week. You can watch on phones, tablets, computers, or your TV through connected streaming devices. However, it’s worth mentioning that there are mobile restrictions that could prevent you from watching away from your home network.
Here’s another streaming service that’ll get you plenty of March Madness games live without breaking the bank. Sling TV is a little cheaper than PlayStation Vue, with simple packages that start at $20 per month (Sling Orange) or $25 per month (Sling Blue).
Sling Blue gets you TBS, TNT, and truTV, so you could stream all the games not on CBS during the tournament. The more stripped down Sling Orange doesn’t have truTV, but you can add it for $5 extra. Plus, Sling offers a week-long free trial, so there’s no reason you couldn’t watch some games for free.
Coupled with a TV antenna, the March Madness Live app, or CBS All Access, that would give you the entire tournament’s worth of action online for the same price or less than Playstation Vue.
AT&T entered the streaming service market at the end of 2016 with DirecTV NOW. This is the most expensive of the streaming options with a starting price of $35 per month. But, in total in gets you more than 60 channels to stream, which is more than any other service.
This is another great way to watch games on TNT, as well as truTV and TBS, with all three being featured in the starting package. Since there’s a weeklong free trial here as well, you could always line up free trials on all the services above to watch nearly the entire tournament free. Since this is the newest live streaming option for cord cutters, you might want to read up a bit in this DirecTV NOW overview.
Your Game Plan
Compared to some other sports and live events, watching March Madness without cable is actually fairly easy – the real question isn’t whether you can watch the whole tournament, but how you plan to do it.
Check the broadcast schedule at NCAA.com and consider which games you really want to see: Are you most interested in the free-for-all frenzy of the wild opening rounds? Your alma mater’s match-ups? The intensity of the Final Four? This will give you a sense of which services you might need — and which ones you don’t.
Since most of the online streaming services offer a free one-week trial, you could stagger a couple seven-day trials to watch the first few rounds and the Sweet Sixteen, and then watch the Final Four and championship game over the air on CBS. As long as you’re not overpaying for internet service, you won’t be spending an arm and a leg, regardless of what setup you choose.
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Chris Brantner is founder of CutCableToday, where he helps people cut the cord and find the programming they want. Follow him on Twitter (@CutCableToday) for more cord-cutting tips.