The 2020 National Football League season is scheduled to start on September 10 with a Thursday night matchup between Houston and Kansas City. The prospect of watching live football on TV after six months of pandemic life has many excited fans searching for the best viewing options.

As has been the case since 1994 when it launched, the NFL Sunday Ticket remains the only way to watch all out-of-market Sunday afternoon games. However, there has been considerable confusion regarding the Ticket over the last few years due to some rule changes, and speculation that DIRECTV will lose its exclusive rights to offer it.

So the TV Answer Man has compiled this up-to-the-minute guide to everything you need to know to subscribe to the NFL Sunday Ticket.

Does Any Pay TV Provider Besides DIRECTV Offer the Sunday Ticket?
No, since the Ticket’s first year in 1994, DIRECTV has had the exclusive rights from the National Football League to sell the Sunday Ticket. Most recently, the satcaster paid $12 billion in 2014 to carry the package exclusively for eight years. Although there have been reports that the league, or DIRECTV’s owner, AT&T, considered opting out of the eight-year agreement, it has not happened. There is also — thus far — nothing to the speculation that the NFL will sell a separate streaming edition of the Sunday Ticket. News reports suggested Amazon and Google were interested in a streaming deal, but it has not occurred.

So I Can’t Get the Ticket From My Cable TV Provider?
That’s right. Your cable TV service might carry the Red Zone Channel, but not the Ticket. (The Red Zone Channel offers live look-ins at games when one team crosses its opponent’s 20-yard-line.)

Does Any Other AT&T TV Service Have the Ticket?
No. Only DIRECTV. Not AT&T TV, AT&T TV Now, or U-verse.

What Is The Cost of the Sunday Ticket?
The Ticket’s base plan is $293.94 and that includes all out-of-market Sunday afternoon games and a streaming option. The Max plan, which costs $395.94, also includes the Red Zone Channel, a fantasy stats channel, and the streaming option.

Doesn’t DIRECTV Offer the Ticket For Free?
DIRECTV earlier this year offered the Ticket for free in e-mails to select existing subscribers. It’s unclear how many existing subscribers got the benefit nor why they did but others didn’t. But if you didn’t get the freebie e-mail, you have to pay.

In addition, DIRECTV includes the Ticket for free to new customers who order the satcaster’s Choice (or above) plan, which starts at $69.99 a month. However, note that you must sign a two-year agreement to subscribe, and year two programming package prices nearly double. (You also have to buy the Ticket in year two if you want to keep watching the out-of-market games.)

Isn’t There a Way to Get the Ticket Without DIRECTV?
Yes. DIRECTV’s streaming edition of the Sunday Ticket is available to university students, people who can prove they can’t get DIRECTV at their residences, and people who live in select markets.

That last qualifier has been the topic of considerable discussion in the last week or so. AT&T told the TV Answer Man earlier this month that people in 29 different markets are now eligible for the streaming Sunday Ticket (cost is roughly the same as the satellite version) even if they can get DIRECTV at their residences. That would mean that you could get the Ticket without a DIRECTV subscription, and without being a university student or live in a residence where you can’t get DIRECTV.

While AT&T says it has allowed non-DIRECTV subscribers in select markets to order the Ticket for five years, the company has certainly kept it quiet if it has. It’s never been advertised, mentioned in the company’s Sunday Ticket promotions, or publicly acknowledged until now.

And no one certainly had even a hint that consumers in 29 different markets could order it without getting DIRECTV, or some AT&T-owned TV service. (AT&T TV Now, the live streaming service, offered the Ticket in seven select markets in 2018, but it halted the feature in 2019.)

But there is a catch. Not everyone in those 29 markets are eligible. AT&T has an eligibility checker here, and it appears that people who live within the market’s city limits are more likely to be deemed eligible to subscribe. Many fans who live in rural or suburban areas have reported they were ruled not eligible.

Unfortunately, AT&T has not explained what formula is used to determine eligibility so the only way to find out your status is to fill in your address and zip code in the eligibility checker. (You can see the 29 markets here.)

If I’m Eligible, Which Streaming Devices Can I Use?
The Sunday Ticket app is available on numerous streaming devices including Roku and Fire TV. You can see a complete list here. 

Is the Sunday Ticket Stream Any Good?
It’s streaming, folks. The Internet can be a cruel mistress and the Sunday Ticket has succumbed to her fickleness more than once. However, user reports suggests that picture reliability has improved somewhat in the last few years. 

What If the NFL Season Is Delayed Or Cancelled?
I think we can take guidance from how AT&T and DIRECTV handled the suspension of the 2020 Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer seasons. There were a few months of uncertainty while the leagues tried to determine when play could begin again. But in late May, DIRECTV decided to issue credits to customers who had earlier subscribed to the MLB Extra Innings and MLS Direct Kick packages before play was suspended.

You would get your money back, eventually.

Why Doesn’t DIRECTV Offer a Single Team Option?
AT&T, which owns DIRECTV, pays $1.5 billion a year to the league for the exclusive rights to the Sunday Ticket. To make that investment worthwhile, the telco needs a lot of revenue coming back in Ticket subscriptions.

If AT&T agreed to offer a single team package, more people who now don’t subscribe would undoubtedly sign up. But the problem is that many people who now pay $300 to $400 for the entire package would undoubtedly downgrade to a sub-$200 single team option, which would mean less revenue overall for AT&T.

Unlike the MLB and NBA, the NFL has only one client for its package of out-of-market games. And it’s AT&T which pays a small fortune for the honor. Consequently, under this scenario, a single team feature simply doesn’t work.

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— Phillip Swann