Q. It’s driving me crazy that Hulu dropped the Fox regional channels including my Fox Sports Detroit now that the NBA season is beginning again. I can’t watch the Pistons games. Is there anyway to watch them without getting cable or satellite? I know you said AT&T TV Now, but that’s expensive. — Rick, Troy, Michigan.
Rick, Four of the top five live streaming services, Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube TV and FuboTV, have lost the 21 Fox-named regional sports networks because they could not reach a new carriage agreement with their owner, Sinclair Broadcasting. The blackouts are driving NBA fans crazy now because the 2020-21 season began this week. (The Sinclair RSNs have the rights to NBA, NHL and MLB games in their respective regions.)
Most cable and satellite TV operators (but not Dish) carry the channels, as does AT&T TV Now. But we all know about the rising cost of cable and satellite, and the AT&T TV Now plan that includes regional sports channels costs $80 a month.
So is there any other way to watch your favorite NBA team now?
The answer is yes, but it poses an ethical dilemma, and possibly some technical ones as well. Let me explain.
The first step is to subscribe to the NBA League Pass for $199. The package, which is available online, offers all out-of-market NBA games not broadcast on national television. It’s not cheap, but it’s still less than what you have to pay for AT&T TV Now for the entire season.
But you might say that the League Pass won’t let you watch your home team because the plan only includes out-of-market games.
You would be right unless you use a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a software that you can download that will enable you to use an IP address different from your own. For instance, if you live in Troy, Michigan, you could insert an IP address into your computer or smart TV device supplied by the VPN company that would make it look like you live in Los Angeles or Luxembourg.
The cost of a VPN varies, but many services sell them for under $10 a month. And there are numerous choices available. (Here’s a Tech Radar story for its pick for the best VPNs for 2021.)
By using a VPN, you could subscribe to the League Pass, and watch every Detroit Pistons game in Troy. Normally, the NBA would be required to blackout the in-market game because the regional channel in your market has the exclusive rights. But with the VPN, the League Pass wouldn’t know you live in that market.
This is true for other markets as well. For example, a Washington, D.C. resident could watch the Washington Wizards on League Pass as could a New York Knicks fan watch their favorites in Manhattan and so on. This can be advantageous because you wouldn’t have to subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service, or AT&T TV Now, to get the regional channel that airs your home team’s games.
Like Major League Baseball, the NBA professes to oppose the use of VPNs, and there have been reports it has to tried to block them. Fans who use VPNs say the games are still occasionally blacked out, but they are available most of the time. The VPN companies seem to play a game of whack-a-mole; when new safeguards are implemented by the leagues, the VPNs ultimately find a way to knock them down.
But if you are unsure about giving the VPN a try, the League Pass also sells a monthly plan for $28.99. If it doesn’t work for you, you’re not investing as much. (The League Pass also has a seven-day free trial so you could try it for a week.)
Now, is it legal to use a VPN to avoid blackouts?
I can not find a single instance where the NBA (or MLB) took anyone to court, much less prosecuted someone for using a VPN. I don’t even know what law you would allegedly violate if you did use a VPN. After all, it’s not like you are stealing anything from the league by using one because you are paying the full subscription amount whether you watch your home team or not. The only difference is that you get to watch the games you want to watch.
At this point, I must acknowledge that I am not an attorney so please don’t count this as professional legal advice. But I do follow this industry very closely, and have for years, and I think I would know if the league ever decided to make this a criminal situation.
I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a specific law that would govern the use of a VPN to stream the games. Otherwise, the leagues would cite it, and use it, when it catches someone in violation.
However, there is another consideration here.
While there would seem to little or no concern of being criminally charged, there is the issue of whether this is the correct moral choice. Skirting the terms of your League Pass or MLB.TV agreement might bother some people (myself, for example. I was raised Catholic, you know.), but maybe it doesn’t bother you.
It’s your call.
Have a question about new TV technologies? Send it to The TV Answer Man at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first name and hometown in your message.
— Phillip Swann