Among the greatest cons foisted upon the American people is the devious notion that one should pay for something otherwise damned-near free. Bottled water? Brilliant.
However, even Mr. and Mrs. Perrier themselves stare wistfully across the corporate ballroom at the cable industry. That thing you can acquire with your television and the 21st Century equivalent of rabbit ears for $125 a month with commercials, plus or minus enough fees to give an airline executive a reason to visit their doctor about their overlong arousal? Bravo, friends. (Note: you now owe your cable provider $2.50 for reading the word 'Bravo' while out of network.) (Oops ... make it $5.00.)
Thus far, most people desperate for a substitute to the cable-and-satellite blues have been left with heavy doses of PBS pledge programming, which studies show isn't good for your health. After all, look how many people die while watching PBS pledge drives. (Though, to be fair, they're all over 80 to start with.)
However, with recent announcements about Hulu Plus and Netflix becoming available on every conceivable device in your home (Netflix's new motto: Watch Instantly But Wait For The Toast), the door has cracked open slightly on a cable-free future.
Unfortunately, the combination of new frontiers, old entanglements, and outright greed have made it nigh-impossible to sort out just how to make the transition to a cableless household. So you go back to your cable or satellite box like a soulless spouse, just hoping you can survive until the kids leave the house.
However, every time you shrug and sigh at the notion of dropping the box off at its parents' place and never looking back, Li'l Jimmy Dolan of Cablevision and Isiah Thomas-enabling fame, writes a bluesy rock song and goes out on tour. In other words, you are personally responsible for debasing America.
You'll need to consult your local oracle to understand your non-sports options, but here's how you find your favorite live sporting events on one of the various devices floating around your life (created 2010-09-07):
Major League Baseball
You can access MLB games on your desktop or laptop computer for $100-120 a season. Included are DVR-like capabilities and home-and-away feeds (for the extra $20), basic stats, audio, condensed games (3.5 hours of baseball in 20 minutes), and the pleasure of beating the system.
Those same video feeds can be delivered to your television proper with an iPad, Boxee settop box, Roku settop box, or your PlayStation 3. The video quality is alright thus far, but MLB Advanced Media has shown an unerring ability to improve video quality significantly year-over-year.
If you own an iOS device (iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad), you get all the same video (without any of the DVR functionality) and other features, including useful tools for while you're at the park or following along with the game on your television. Expect to pay $7 more each year per device.
Of course, MLB still makes its cash through network contracts, so you can forget about Saturday afternoon or Sunday night games for the most part. Also, MLB would play Russian roulette with each team's regional sports network golden goose if it didn't block local games. (Even the ones your local RSN isn't showing. Talkin' to you, Fox Sports Arizona.)
Since many fans won't see their local teams on "free" television without divine intervention, you might find the switch a bit premature. And Jimmy Dolan pretends to tune his guitar while cackling (because he's not exactly sure what 'in-tune' sounds like).
National Basketball Association
Last season, you could earn the right to watch NBA games on your desktop or laptop computer for $170 (or free with League Pass purchase, but that's rather besides the point in our cable-free future). We've been promised this season that the video will also appear on iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. There's no word yet if you can get video from the iPad to appear on your television.
If you have a Roku settop box, you can see highlights and scores for free, but it's not exactly what you signed for, right? Keep trying, Roku.
Also, keep trying, fans of local teams. Regional sports networks are more important than you, so you can forget seeing any games not on over-the-air television.
National Hockey League
Same as the NBA: $170, desktop or laptop. No word on an iOS-compatible port yet, but you can watch the same games on your Boxee settop box with the same subscription.
Same as the NBA and MLB: your regional sports network has a beautiful plan for your life. Listen to your regional sports network. Do not try to watch local games without permission from your regional sports network.
National Football League
You, too, can enjoy NFL games on your iPhone/iPod Touch or your desktop/laptop computer for the low, low price of $50!
Plus $320 for DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket.
Plus your usual DirecTV cost.
Plus nevermind. At least you can usually hook up your digital antenna to see your local teams.
And Now A Brief Sampling Of Other Sports
UFC fans can catch whole PPVs on Roku settop boxes, iPhones, and your desktop or laptop computer for a mere $45 per PPV.
You may take a moment to scoop yourselves up and put a cold compress on your head where you smacked it upon passing out at hearing you must pay $45 to see a UFC PPV on a screen the size of your hand.
Sorry. Did it again. Might want to rest your head on a pillow for the remainder of this.
NCAA March Madness can be had on your iPhone/iPod Touch (and possibly iPad this season) for less than $20. Last season, video quality was passable on 3G and darned good on WiFi. You can also catch the games for free at work on your desktop or laptop computer. Honestly, it's like the NCAA wants you to watch its games. When will they learn?
Soccer is available on Fox Sports Soccer for $15/mo, which is probably the way to go for English Premier League fans. MLS offers their own games up at their site for $40/season.
NASCAR offers augmented video (driver video, in-car audio, telemetry, DVR capabilities, etc.) for $80 per season, but you can't see the actual TV feed unless TNT is showing the race. In other news, you will be totally shocked to find out NASCAR contracted with Turner Digital to maintain their web presence.
Sorry. Hope your head was on your pillow.
The ESPN3 Conundrum
ESPN recently announced the availability of ESPN3.com (formerly ESPN360.com) on Xbox 360 Live Gold subscribers come this fall. They will also get access to even more live events than ESPN3.com, covering most sporting events that ESPN subscribers can see. Offhand, you can see soccer, golf, boxing, tennis, drag racing, college football, college basketball, badminton, volleyball, etc, etc, etc.
ESPN3.com is available now on your desktop or laptop computer as well, making it possible for you to digest more sporting events than you ever could from your cable box ...
... assuming you have permission. Which you probably don't. Your Internet service provider has to sign up with ESPN to enable the service. You might see your ISP on the ESPN3 affiliate list, but you may never see it there, either. Or you might find that you have to pay for cable through your ISP/cable provider combo to get it.
And if that ESPN3 affiliate list reminds you a little of a cable provider list from 1985, you are now free to sigh heavily and shrug.
Still, should you wish to jam your foot into the newly-opened crevice, you could soon toss off the shackles of carriage fee carryover in lieu of direct payments to the content providers. It has all the appearances of progress but with none of the social benefits.
Yet it could save you hundreds of dollars a year, which will help you soak your other troubles in your ludicrously expensive bottled water habit. After all, Daddy needs his Pelligrino chaser after work ...
Update: 09-07-2010 9:45 pm EDT Ross Siler (formerly of the Salt Lake Tribune and now of law school) notes you can add up your own cable bill if you didn't have to buy all-or-nothing. Of course, this conveniently skips any number of salient points why your bill really wouldn't be this low, but you get the idea. Also, the article mentions 40% of carriage fees go to sports broadcasting.
Of course, those numbers might well be out of date by now. Guess how much ESPN 3D will cost.