March 5, 2017 at 2:34 p.m. PST
tvOS brings a whole new level of interactivity to live sports broadcasts. This article covers how to watch sports on Apple TV.
Sports are the most viewed content on television. One only need look at Nielsen ratings to see that the Super Bowl dominates the list of most viewed broadcasts. Given the enormous popularity of sports, the content is guarded by networks. While anyone with a TV and antenna can watch sports for free, the new era of Internet broadcasting has networks feeling less generous. It’s hard to find free sports apps on any platform. At best, you may be able to activate a “free” app if you pay for a cable or satellite subscription. In recent years, major events such as the Super Bowl have been available for free. But if you want to really follow any major sport, you typically have to pay.
This trend isn’t as dystopian as it seems. There are compelling reasons to watch sports on a TV appliance such as Apple TV. tvOS apps, unlike broadcast television, have the potential to be interactive. These new features allow fans to view statistics, check schedules and even watch multiple games on the same screen. You may have to pay for this advanced functionality, but it’s much cheaper than actually going to the game. In fact, subscribing to one season of interactive sports usually costs less than one ticket to a professional sporting event.
Apple TV offers a wide array of amazing sports apps. These are usually official apps of the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL. They’re not cheap, but they are far more immersive and entertaining than their traditional TV counterparts. If you’re a huge sports fan, the costs are well worth the entertainment value. Let’s take a look at tvOS apps offered by six major sports — NFL football, NBA basketball, NCAA basketball, MLB baseball, NHL hockey and MLS soccer. For the international reader or expatriate, we’ll also take a look at the Willow TV cricket app.
NFL and NFL Sunday Ticket Apps for Apple TV
The NFL offers two apps for Apple TV, but they certainly won’t replace cable or an antenna. Football is the most popular sport in the US. It generates a lot of revenue from advertising. The franchises also want to make sure people will show up at the games. For these reasons and more, both NFL apps are severely limited. They have also garnered the ire of customers, who have given both apps poor ratings, for good reason. You can’t really watch live football games on these apps. The NFL app allows for playing past games, on demand, if you pay for a subscription. With the NFL Sunday Ticket app, users can play some live games as long as it’s Sunday, they’re not blacked out and you’re a DIRECTV subscriber. There’s a good reason why both of these apps are rated at 1.5/5 stars.
The apps themselves are fairly decent and exhibit quality software development. It’s just that the business aspects have dictated that you can’t really watch football games on Apple TV. This absurdity is not just limited to sports. Most networks require a cable or satellite subscription to activate their content. This is precisely why TV devices such as Apple TV are not catching on. The technology is here, but the businesses are lagging behind, clinging to their old and profitable ways. They can also profit from interactive television, but they seem to adhere to the old adage — “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
There’s also a lot of legal collusion and contracts between sports organizations, cable providers, TV networks and other entities. It’s simply too much inertia to break from the status quo. They don’t even have to replace the old way of watching sports on TV or at the stadium.
The NFL app for Apple TV is a decent app, but at best, is only an adjunct to televised games. Unlike other sports app offerings, the NFL app doesn’t have any of the slick interactive features. You can watch free clips and previously broadcast games (if you purchase a Game Pass subscription for $49.99). If you have the right cable provider, you can possibly watch select games live, however, they don’t support Comcast, the largest cable company. The app has potential, but it’s ruined by exclusive deals and limitations. For those looking to research teams and watch commentary shows, the app may prove useful.
DIRECTV has created their own football app — NFL Sunday Ticket. This app allows DIRECTV customers to watch out-of-market regular season NFL games on Sunday. If they had any more rules, they could create their own religion. Unfortunately, since football season is over, I was unable to even browse this app to write about features. The app loaded, showed a Chevy commercial and then a displayed a “see you next season” message.
Overall, if you’re looking for a sport that has embraced technology and supports the full potential of TV devices, look elsewhere. Football is lagging behind the curve and is mired in a web of contracts and deals. Unlike so many other industries, they haven’t yet figured out how to profit in the digital age. It seems as though protecting their current business partners, TV networks and cable/dish providers, is stalling their digital strategy. If you’re a football fan, forget about Apple TV or any TV device. Just stick with cable, satellite or rabbit ears.
NBA App for Apple TV
Basketball, being less popular than football, also has less of the wheeling and dealing that limits adoption of new technology. The NBA app for Apple TV actually allows users to watch games, if they pay for a NBA League Pass subscription. At $99.99 customers can purchase a League Pass for one season. This subscription allows viewing of regular season live and on-demand games for all 30 teams. If you just want to follow one team, the Team Pass only costs $59.99. Both subscriptions are subject to blackout restrictions.
The NBA app is refreshingly simple. It’s not loaded with myriad clips of talking heads. Instead, the app is oriented toward watching live games and following statistics. The app’s Games screen offers an innovative calendar-based user interface for browsing game schedules. The Standings screen allows users to browse stats. For those who can’t always see the game live, the settings screen allows users to hide scores in order to avoid spoilers.
While the NBA app is a reasonable attempt to embrace technology, it has its flaws. Not being able to watch blacked out games means that you will still need cable, a dish or an antenna. You can’t circumvent this by using VPN. It’s not a technical limitation, but another concession to the networks. The problem is that this just makes your Apple TV an adjunct to standard television offerings. If you love basketball, you may be able to cut the cord, so long as your antenna still works.
NCAA March Madness Live App for Apple TV
College basketball is so popular that, although it is not a professional sport, its absence in this article would be notable. The NCAA March Madness Live app for Apple TV offers the ability to watch two games simultaneously. It’s also free, as long as you subscribe to cable or satellite television.
The app itself is very simple with only three screens — Watch, Schedule and Settings. The Watch screen allows users to view highlight clips and related videos. The Schedule screen displays past and upcoming games grouped by bracket categories — Final Four, Elite 8, Sweet 16 and more.
Overall, this app is nothing special until one actually watches the game. The ability to watch two games at a time is crucial to college basketball, and something you can’t really do on cable. At best, you may be able to finagle some picture-in-picture capabilities, but the NCAA app goes far beyond that. There’s also no blackouts. The only drawback is that you must have a cable or satellite subscription in order to activate the app.
MLB App for Apple TV
Baseball is America’s favorite pastime, and the MLB app for Apple TV delivers a lot with a minimum of restrictions. It also offers stunning high-definition at 60 frames per second and the ability to watch two games simultaneously. Although the app requires a subscription for full activation, it also offers a free account and access to free games. It’s one of the most generous offerings of any major sport.
The app itself is streamlined and optimized to browse the schedule and watch games. Upon launch, viewers are presented with the Games screen with its innovative, card-based user interface. The cards display current games for the day. Each individual card features statistics on the game, including the score, bases, the current inning and other stats. Clicking on a card starts live game playback. Users can also browse highlights and standings from the top menu. At $109.99 a year, MLB.TV Premium isn’t cheap, but if you’re a baseball fan, it has a lot to offer.
The MLB’s digital offering is surprisingly modern, especially given the old-time, traditional nature of baseball. They have embraced the digital world with few restrictions. Unfortunately, users can only watch out-of-market games using the app. Without a doubt, the networks still have a strangle hold on sports. You’ll still need cable, satellite or an antenna to watch every game.
NHL App for Apple TV
Although ice hockey isn’t as popular as football, baseball or basketball, it does enjoy a huge following, particularly in areas with cold winters. I grew up in a colder climate, learned how ice skate and played street hockey with my friends. Hockey was huge where I lived, but that’s not true everywhere. Hockey is gaining popularity in areas where it isn’t cold. The San Jose Sharks are remarkably popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, even though most of their fans don’t know how to ice skate. It’s easy to see the appeal of hockey. The sport is action packed and doesn’t continually pause, as with most sports. Technology improvements have made it easier to see the puck.
The NHL app for Apple TV is remarkably similar to the MLB app. It’s actually developed by Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the same corporation that created the MLB app. It offers all the same features as the MLB app — 60 frames per second high-definition video, the ability to watch 2 games at a time, and the card-based user interface. The app differs from the MLB offering in that users are guided through a brief setup process. Picking favorite teams and turning off score data (to prevent spoilers) are part of the one-time configuration process. Users can also choose whether to join a live game from the start or in progress. Unfortunately, a subscription to NHL.TV costs $139.99 a year.
Limitations of the NHL.TV app are common to all major sports apps. Viewers can only watch out-of-market games. This means you’ll need to watch the game on cable, satellite or using an antenna if it is shown on local TV.
MLS App for Apple TV
Americans love to play soccer, however, watching the sport has never really caught on. Although soccer is enormously popular in the rest of the world, the US audience is quite small. Viewership is growing, however, the typical Major League Soccer match only gets audiences in the hundreds of thousands. FIFA is much more popular but they don’t offer an Apple TV app.
The MLS app for Apple TV offers a similar set of features found in every other sports app. Users can quickly browse match schedules, watch highlights, browse standings and watch live games. The MLS app bypasses in-app purchasing. If you wish to subscribe to MLS Live, you’ll need to do it through their website. An MLS Live subscription costs $79.99 a year.
As with all major sports app, MLS live only allows viewers to watch out-of-market games. The blackouts and subscription fees make it hard for casual soccer fans to find it useful.
Willow TV App for Apple TV
Cricket is not very popular in the U.S., however, it is extremely popular internationally. Countries that were formerly part of the British Empire tend to have a lot of cricket fans. Having worked with software engineers from India, I am well aware of the popularity of the sport. Although you will rarely see a cricket match on American television, the Willow TV app for Apple TV makes it possible for anyone to enjoy the sport.
The Willow TV app for Apple TV gets to the heart of the matter, with live games featured on the opening screen. Viewers can watch replays, highlights and access settings from the top menu. Unfortunately, without a $14.99/mo subscription, the app is completely useless. It’s not even possible to watch highlights without a paid subscription.
Cricket is not aired on American network television. This enables Willow TV to escape any blackout restrictions. When you subscribe to Willow TV, you can watch any cricket match. This fact alone may convert a few cord-cutting American sports fans to cricket.
Apple TV Sports Apps Are Not for Cord Cutters
One of the biggest questions about TV devices is whether people can cancel cable. After all, Apple TV is far more capable than any digital cable box. If you live in an area with excellent aerial TV reception, you can probably get all of the in-market games using an antenna. If this is the case, Apple TV and a few subscriptions can fill in all of the gaps. Although the subscriptions aren’t cheap, most of the apps transcend the basic features of cable or satellite TV. You can’t really watch two games at a time on cable. Standard television packages don’t offer interactive sports statistics.
Blackouts are the most frustrating aspect of Apple TV sports apps. When a game is broadcast on local television, you simply can’t watch it on Apple TV, no matter how much you paid for a subscription. You can circumvent this with an antenna, if you decide to cancel cable. The problem is that you lose all of the interactive features. This situation won’t change until the networks figure out how to embrace the digital future. They need to make money through advertising, but most Apple TV owners are not averse to ads. We won’t see a breakthrough in this area until businesses figure out how to monetize streaming video. Although there are numerous successful examples of how to do this, advertisers, networks and sports leagues are weary of the digital future.
There are other ways to enjoy sports on Apple TV. ESPN offers a variety of sports apps. Virtually every major network offers an app, and many of them have specific apps just for sports. The problem is that they all require a cable or satellite subscription for activation. Once again, at best, Apple TV can only serve as an adjunct to cable or satellite television. The technology is here. We just have to wait for the businesses to catch up.
New cable-over-the-Internet services have emerged and are launching every day. Sling TV, PlayStation VUE, DIRECTV NOW and YouTube TV all offer cable channel bundles without cable. Hulu is slated to launch their service soon. While these services have potential, they also face tremendous restrictions. They’re all missing critical channels and often have blacked out content on available channels. While you can watch sports on most of these services, your options are often limited. At best, they are typically much less expensive than cable. If you can accept their limitations, you can probably cancel cable and do quite well with an Apple TV.
There is hope. For the past few years, the Super Bowl has been available for free on Apple TV. The broadcast is monetized with advertisements. People actually enjoy watching Super Bowl commercials. Given that the most popular sporting event is free on Apple TV, it’s only a matter of time until it becomes routine. After all, when you watch any sport on TV, it is financed by advertisements. Simply inserting commercials into the stream can actually be quite profitable for sports leagues.
The other problem is that the local TV affiliate and TV provider suffer. As with any fading industry, they are desperately clinging on to their aging business model. The new breed of cable-over-the-Internet apps may help bridge the digital transition for traditional broadcast entities. It may also be necessary to subsidize local TV affiliates when viewers choose the superior experience of Apple TV.