How to Watch Football for Travelers

the old pigskin

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Ah, football. For many Americans, it dominates our lives for four months a year.

If you’ve got a great team, that can last up to six months. If you’re a die hard fan, the addiction can last all year.

But what does a full-time traveler do when in short supply of fancy always-on high definition television access to watching games? Following your favorite team, and finding their games on as you wander about the country, can be a feat all in and of itself. Never mind the hours spent watching the game, just finding a place to watch it or waiting for those key plays to load can be over half the battle. Here we’ll explore your options for watching NFL games on the road.

Watch the Game at a Bar

This is by far the most reliable way to catch every play of your favorite team’s games. Bars have TVs, and television rarely shorts out like the Internet does (more on that to come).

That does not mean catching this week’s game at the bar will be a steadfast guarantee. The way the NFL works, depending on where you are in the country and who your cable provider at the time is determines which games will be showing. Most teams play at 1pm or during the 4 o’clock hour on Sundays, so the number of games on at one time compared to the three channels on network television actually broadcasting games in a particular region means that your chances of catching the Jets in California when the Raiders, 49ers, Chargers and/or any other West Coast teams are playing is slim.

Plus, Monday Night Football moved to ESPN a few years back…so unless the bar has a cable package including that channel, you’re out of luck in many cases.

Watching at the Bar 4/5 Stars Bars with DirecTV are the most reliable way to watch the game, though drinks and burgers aren’t cheap.

Showing up at a bar means you need to rely on a few factors. Firstly, you’ll want to find bars that have a big “DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket” sign out front. They usually read, “Every Game. Every Sunday.” And that’s true, DirecTV does offer every single NFL game played on a Sunday to its subscribers.

However, if a bar only has three televisions and more faithful fans show up earlier than you, your team’s game may not be shown. Or, you may find that the game you want to watch is showing on a television already surrounded by more people than seats. Standing room only is not an uncommon occurrence at such venues.

Your most likely bet is finding a smallish town with a killer bar that has tons of TVs and a small enough population to assure you a seat. Showing up an hour or so early doesn’t hurt either, but considering the alcohol commitment a typical NFL game warrants, even a little pre-game means you’ll want to sip on that Budweiser or suffer the dreaded Monday morning hangover. Note that if you’re used to watching a game in the comfort of your own living room, the barroom atmosphere does tend to increase your desire, willing or otherwise, to put a few more down than usual. Not to mention the extra cash a single game will cost you.

For certain fans, you’ve got an edge. From personal experience, I’ve noticed that a few teams have bars across the nation, far from their hometowns. The Steelers, the Jets, and Green Bay are at the top of this list. It seems that as much as you can lead a dog to water, you can’t keep that dog from opening a bar dedicated to the team that hails from their doghouse.

Television in an RV

Many RV parks provide cable access, and if your rig is equipped, it’s as easy as screwing a coaxial cable into your RV and checking the park’s channel guide.

Again, you’re at the mercy of which games are showing in the region you’re visiting. There’s always a chance your team will be featured on Fox, NBC or CBS…or perhaps playing a more local team from that corner of the country.

As for reliability, you’re still on a cable connection, so like most TV, you won’t miss big plays simply because of fast action or download limits. You get the perks of watching the game from home–no annoying rivals heckling you, drunks hooting in the background or $4 pint prices. On the other hand, the energy of a bar when your team is winning can be part of the enjoyment.

Still, if this is an option, and you like watching the big game at home, you’re all set.

A TV in Your RV 4/5 Stars There’s no place like home, as long as your game’s on local TV.

Verizon

The nation’s largest cell phone provider has some sort of deal with the NFL where they are allowed to stream local Sunday NFL games in addition to every single Sunday Night, Monday Night and Thursday Night game, plus all of the playoff games and the SuperBowl. For travelers, the idea of “local” is ambiguous of course, but Verizon defines it as games which are being shown on broadcast television in the physical location of where you’re using the service.

It’s not based off of your cell number, billing ZIP code, or where you signed up for your plan, but your actual physical location and what’s showing on Fox or CBS during the two Sunday “morning” (1pm Eastern) and “afternoon” (4pm-ish Eastern) time slots.

If you were a Miami fan, that means you’d be guaranteed their two night games this season. For the twelve morning games the Dolphins play, you’d only get those which are being shown on television in the physical location you’re currently staying. Since there are eight games shown in this time slot, and you only have the ability to watch two, your odds would appear to be about 1 in 4 of catching your team. These increase if you’re staying in AFC East territory, which is fine for snowbirds wintering out the year near Miami, but who wants to be near Buffalo, NYC or New England in December? For the remaining two afternoon games they play in 2014, your chances are significantly better, as only two to four games are shown in that time slot.

All in all, you’d probably see about seven games this year.

Fluctuations in cell service accounted for (though Verizon did state that they lower the quality so you can see everything, rather than try and buffer HD on a shoddy connection), you may end up with even fewer.

Verizon & NFL Mobile 2/5 Stars Similar limitations as relying on cable, but with poorer quality and more expensive.

NFL Game Pass

As of 2015, the NFL began offering an app called “Game Pass”. It promised to allow you to watch every single game from Pre-season through the Super Bowl. All for $100 / year. Which would have been a real, well, touchdown…except that you can’t watch games live. You have to wait until they’re over.

It’s almost impossible to not watch a game and not find out who won. I get bombarded with txt messages, it’s often on the radio, it’s just very, very difficult to prevent yourself from discovering the score of a game that’s already over.

Bummer.

NFL Game Pass 1/5 Stars Who wants to watch a game after the fact?

As for price, Verizon’s data plans and what they cost fluctuate from month to month, but here’s an example of what you could expect if you signed up in November of 2014 (note that all of this comes with a two year contract, too, and doesn’t include the cost of your devices).

  1. One line of service with Verizon, 10GB of data $120 / month
    • Add a Tablet $10 / month, otherwise you can only watch the games on your phone
    • Total $130 / month + taxes and fees
  2. No phone service with Verizon, just a 10GB data plan $90 / month
    • Plus the Tablet $10 / month
    • Total $130 / month + taxes and fees

The phone plan also includes their minimum charge for cell service, and don’t forget, all of these fees are before taxes–which are hefty with cellular plans.

All in all, you’re looking at somewhere between $1200 – $1560 / year..

If you’re willing to shell out that kind of cash to watch less than half of any given team’s games via NFL Mobile and Verizon, it definitely gives you another option, though, and if you are already a Verizon customer the additional cost is negligible. If you just love football in general and don’t mind missing out on a specific team, you end up getting as many games as you would if you watched on a TV at home via regular broadcast or cable subscriptions.

Illegal sites

There are a ton of sites out there streaming illegal broadcasts of NFL games. We won’t link to any specifically, because they come and go like right turns at a red light, but a simple search for “watch NFL games online” will get you where you want to be.

These work…but they are far from ideal. Firstly, there are a ton of ads. Like, so many that you often can’t close them all as quickly as new ones pop up. I’ve had to use Chrome’s developer tools to go in and delete them at times, and for anyone who isn’t a major Internet dork, that’s probably not an option.

If you can get through the ads, the next problem is buffering. Unlike Hulu or Netflix, these games come through at a fixed rate of quality, so if your connection is bad, you’ll be loading more than watching. Further, because of how streaming video works–fast action requires more bandwidth than less movement–you tend to catch all of the commercials, the huddles, the stats, and miss out on any big plays. As soon as your team starts running down the field, you lose connection.

Beyond annoying.

Online Streaming 4/5 Stars Unfortunately, going this illegal route is the best option, but slow Internet access can make it impossible.

Still, short of finding a nearby bar that is showing your game, this is currently the best option. Pray for a great connection and prepare for a lot of missed plays.

I’m fairly confident that many fans would part with $10-30 a month for the ability to even follow just one team this way…but the NFL chooses not to provide this service legally. Like mp3s, it probably has to do with licensing and monetary concerns. And maybe these illegal sites will Napster the NFL into the 21st century.

That is still yet to be seen.

Follow Your Team, Go to Stadiums

The least realistic but perhaps most adventurous way to get truly serious about your team would be to “simply” follow them around the country as they play out every home and away game. There are travelers who just go to national parks, or who specifically seek out breweries or historic sites, so why not football vagabonds?

It actually sounds like a great time that would land you in a lot of less-than-usual places to visit, and force you to get really crafty with finding RV parks, getting tickets, and traveling long distances sometimes in a week.

Romantically, I imagine tailgating parties rallying up around RV villages in stadiums across the country, cold weather being braved to support your team Sunday after Sunday, and the story you’d have to tell come the playoffs.

Realistically, with $150 – $200 being nothing to pay for a ticket to an NFL game these days, and the likelihood you’d do a ton of driving, the expense of gas may sink your pigskin pursuits around mid-season.

Let’s do a hypothetical with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If we were to follow them from the start of this year’s season all the way through the end of December 2014, here’s what your travel schedule would be like.

You’d begin your journey September 7th, a beautiful time of year to be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The leaves will not yet have begun to change, and yet the full on heat of summer will have dissipated. Four days later, you’ll need to be in Baltimore to see them take on the Ravens. At four hours away, that would be no big deal.

You’d then have ten days to make the seven hour trek to Charlotte, North Carolina for their lineup against the Panthers. A week later, you’re back in Pittsburgh. Three games in and you’re at just under 900 miles.

Next up, you’ll be headed back down south, this time to Jacksonville, but you would have a full week to make the 830 mile trip. Don’t get too celebratory over a win though, because you’re headed back to Ohio the following week for a match up with the Browns. Autumn will be in full swing in the Northeast, and you’re about to get a long stretch of those changing leaves to call home.

A three-straight-home-games break from traveling, you get to call Pittsburgh your homeland for the bulk of October. A jaunt out to New Jersey to watch the Black and Gold take on the Jets, maybe the only other team in the NFL with as dedicated a following as the Steelers. Nothing compared to you, of course, at over 3,300 miles by the middle of the season. Still, by this time in November, it’s getting pretty cold in the mid-Atlantic.

You’ll be down in Tennessee after that, returning to Pittsburgh for a matchup against the Saints, and then an easy enough jaunt to Cincinnati following, though this is your first chance at seeing some snow in the region. You’ll then visit the Falcons in Atlanta before heading back to Pittsburgh to face up against the Chiefs, and sticking around for a final game against the Bengals.

Follow Your Team Physically 3/5 Stars Seemingly ridiculous, it could also be a ton of fun…if you can afford it!

Does it sound fun? Well, yeah. You’ll experience three different seasons, all out of order as you watch the changing foliage begin under Pittsburgh’s September only to be thrust back into the still hot and summery of Jacksonville the next week. You’ll cover mountains, near the ocean, and accents will range from New Yorker to Southern drawl all the while. There would be a good deal of traveling, but nothing completely out of the question. The longest stretch would be from Pittsburgh to the top of Florida, and though it’s a long drive, you’ve got an entire week to do it.

Does it sound expensive? Ridiculously so, but if you’ve got the cash, why not? You can’t take it with you as they say, and being able to brag, “I went broke following the Steelers” wouldn’t be the worst way to introduce yourself at the soup kitchen.

All in all though, the grim reality is that it is not exactly easy to keep up with football while traveling. If you’re in a city with lots of bars, chances are high you can find one with both NFL Sunday Ticket and showing your game.

If your team is playing a lot of games in the areas you’re visiting, and/or night games, Verizon + NFL Mobile may be able to help you out. Otherwise, watching games illegally over ad-ridden sites continues to be your best bet.

Maybe next season the Commissioner will wise up and those of us who travel and want to watch our favorite teams and the ad-riddled agonizing minutes in between plays will be afforded the privilege of paying for the same games that are available for free and over the air to anyone who lives near a team.