Ah, fall. When the days grow shorter, the air gets crisper, and we finally get American football back after a purgatory of endless midseason baseball games and Olympics roundups about Bob Costas’s dimples. I’ve been obsessed with football — both college and the NFL — since I was a little kid, so this is unquestionably my favorite time of year. And there’s never been a better time to be a fan. Apps galore for iPhones and iPads have now made it possible to watch games on the go — and out of original broadcast market. A word of warning: several of these applications only work in the U.S. market and with a subscription to cable or satellite. So no fair complaining about that like the App Store critics do.
SkyFire Web Browser $3 iPhone, $5 iPad
If you don’t care a great deal about legality, this is the only app you need to watch virtually any college or NFL game. It’s a web browser (and not a great one) with a magical attribute — playing back flash video by transcoding it on the company’s servers. When you visit a site with flash video, you simply tap the videos tab to get a list of local streams that it can convert for iPad viewing. It’s a little complex, but it works most of the time, and with reasonable quality — even with AT&T’s sometimes sluggish 3.5G network. And it looks great on LTE. Skyfire usually works on legitimate sites, like the streaming front ends for the Big Ten and Pac 12 networks (which can be purchased with an inexpensive subscription) or Watch ESPN, but it’s even more useful on pirate sports viewing sites based in Eastern Europe that carry the entire NFL lineup, which I will decline to name here but you can find pretty easily with a little Googling. The big caveat on Skyfire is that it’s a total hack, so it doesn’t always work, the video quality can be quite poor, and there’s no one to complain to if it isn’t working properly.
Sunday Ticket Free for iPhone and iPad (with cable/satellite subscription
NFL Sunday Ticket should, by all accounts, be a football fan’s absolute favorite app. It allows you to stream every single NFL game on either your iPad or iPhone, and the HD video quality is gorgeous. It works pretty much exactly as sports broadcasting in the 21st Century should.
The only way to get access to Sunday Ticket is to pay a $250-300 subscription AND either be a DirecTV user or own a PlayStation3. [It is actually possible to get online-only Sunday Ticket without a PS3 or DirecTV if you can prove satellite reception doesn’t work or you have landlord restrictions. Thanks, @marioeconomics.] As a person who can’t stand when no amount of money will purchase a service unless I also have another product or service, too, this infuriates me (especially because my apartment building doesn’t allow tenants to use DirecTV, what with the dishes and all). For you DirecTV, PS3-owning, and poor line-of-satellite-sight NFL fans, however, this app is your best friend. Just know that the rest of us will be really, really annoyed with you have a harder decision ahead of us.
WatchESPN Free universal app (with cable/satellite subscription)
For the college football fan, WatchESPN is the single-most important app you can have in your arsenal. The app allows live-streaming of ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU, as well as countless ESPN3 online-only games, all in fairly gorgeous HD video. So why does it have a 1.5-star rating on the App Store? Two reasons, really: 1. It can sometimes forget that you’re logged in and lock you out with no feedback for about a minute. 2. It requires that you use Brighthouse Networks, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or Verizon FiOS (either with TV subscription or internet only). That’s a lot of people who pay for ESPN whose foolish cable and satellite providers are blocking access to “TV Everywhere.” As a Comcast subscriber, it’s absolutely glorious. It’s not much use for the NFL, save only for Monday Night Football and one or two playoff games, however. CBS also has the contract for SEC college games, so fans in the south will want to look elsewhere — and CBS doesn’t have its own app. There are a handful of exclusive games that only run on the Big Ten and Pac-12 networks, also.
College football is all about regions of the country (or it was before conference alignment went totally crazy). And with 115+ teams in the FBS, chances are that your favorite team’s games won’t show in your area, even on ESPN3. Enter the conference video apps, which provide live video of games exclusive to the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network, and whatever passes for the ACC network. Currently, there are no similar applications for the Big 12, SEC, or Big East. These usually work similarly to WatchESPN, but with lower budgets. For both the Big 10 and Pac-12 apps, you need to log in with account details from a supported provider (neither is on Comcast yet, which is infuriating), while for the ACC app you make a one-time in-app purchase of $4 to unlock live streaming capability. All said, these are fantastic applications if your cable system supports your conference network of choice, you subscribe to it, and they have an agreement for streaming via the app. So, things are good if you have DirecTV or Verizon, basically. The rest of us will be using Skyfire to go to the website we already have subscriptions for. Jerks.
NFL ’12 Free Universal App ($10 in-app purchase for some features)
Think of NFL ’12 as the sad consolation prize version of Sunday Ticket for those of us without DirecTV or PS3. It provides live scores and stats (as do 9 billion websites and thousands of other stats), but it also shows some NFL Network content live and live audio streaming on the iPad (the lack of iPhone support is totally inexplicable) with an in-app purchase of $10. This NFL Network content includes NFL Fantasy Live for fantasy football maniacs and the Thursday Night Football games that are only shown on NFL Network and in-market local affiliates. Again, it’s not great, but it’s a way to get access to games outside of your market at relatively low cost if you’re not an NFL Network subscriber, and I give it some credit for not requiring a cable or satellite subscription to join in.