How to watch March Madness without cable
A March Madness 2020 cord-cutting guide so you don’t miss a game
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In what is surely the saddest update note I've ever had to make at Reviewed, March Madness has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, you may find some temporary comfort in running to your TV right now to watch Hoosiers, He Got Game, or—if you're desperate—Air Bud. Good luck out there, sports fans.
March Madness is one of the greatest sporting events of the year and there’s no reason you need to miss a shot, even if you’re cord-cutting. I should know, because I said goodbye to Comcast years ago and still catch every game I can using a combination of Sling TV (offering a free trial now) and a decent TV antenna. Since watching TV is now the only way anyone is going to see March Madness games, here's what you need to know.
What is March Madness, anyway?
The term “March Madness” is extremely accurate (except perhaps for the fact that the schedule bleeds into April). It’s a basketball blitz in which an awful lot of single-elimination games are played in a short amount of time.
Each game is loaded with all the standard drama of championship sports, but because these are college players, the seniors on each team are faced with the possibility that it’s the last real game of basketball they’ll ever play. That’s the secret nitro in the tank that leads to more sweat and tears than you’ll see in any other sport.
When is March Madness?
NCAA March Madness starts in mid-March and runs through the beginning of April every year. In 2020, here are some key dates:
- Selection Sunday: March 15, 2020. 6 PM ET
- First Four: Tuesday and Wednesday, March 17-18, 2020
- Round 1: Thursday, March 19 and Friday, March 20, 2020
- Round 2: Saturday, March 21 and Sunday, March 22, 2020
- Sweet 16: Thursday, March 26 and Friday, March 27, 2020
- Elite 8: Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29, 2020
- Final Four: Saturday, April 4, 2020
- National championship game: Monday, April 6, 2020
What channels are the games on?
The exact schedule of games will not be announced until Selection Sunday, March 15th, at 6PM EST. But generally speaking, here’s what you need to know.
Due to the frantic schedule, especially during Rounds 1 and 2, March Madness games take place simultaneously over four channels: CBS, TBS, TNT, and TruTV.
CBS, being one of the grand old networks, is broadcast terrestrially and your local CBS affiliate can be picked up by a TV antenna. The rest, however, require some kind of paid subscription.
If you do have cable, your provider is likely to carry all these channels in most packages. DirecTV, Spectrum, and Dish carry all channels in every package. Comcast, for example, carries the channels in all its packages except Limited Basic/Choice. Cox offers the channels with its Contour service, but not with the Starter package.
Don’t have cable? Don’t worry, there are still plenty of chances to watch the games.
What streaming services should cord-cutters use?
If you’re a cord-cutter who wants the Madness without cable, you’ll need a good streaming alternative, of which there are many great options for live sports.
My recommendation is Sling TV, which I’ve used as my March Madness streaming service of choice for three years running. The Sling Blue package is just $20/month and includes TNT, TBS, and TruTV.
Sling does not, however, include your local CBS affiliate—that’s where a good, affordable TV antenna comes into play. Fortunately, we’ve tested antennas that we love for as little as $20. And unlike a streaming service, an antenna is a one-time cost.
If you’re really looking to save money, you can even cancel your Sling subscription at the end of March, since all the April games are on CBS. But expect Sling to offer some money-saving deals (including a free Amazon Fire Stick or other hardware) if you prepay for a few months.
The Sling TV app is compatible with just about every streaming device (including Apple TV) and smart TV, and the interface is dead simple. Pair it with a Roku and you’ll be sitting pretty for this and several Marches of Madness to come.
Other streaming service options
There are three other seemingly compelling streaming service options: fubuTV, Hulu Live TV, and YouTube TV. Each is more than twice the price of Sling Blue, but they include CBS and therefore don’t require a TV antenna.
FuboTV is a streaming service with a strong focus on sports. It carries all the channels you’ll need for March Madness, but at $54.99 for its cheapest package, it’s probably only worth it if you want a lot of additional content.
Hulu Live TV also carries CBS, TNT, TBS, and TruTV, but with the same $54.99 price as fuboTV.
YouTube TV is yet another option for watching every game on every channel, and costs a little less than FuboTV and Hulu Live TV ($49.99).
As also-rans, you may be interested in checking out two more services: NCAA March Madness Live and CBS All Access.
The NCAA March Madness Live app is the NCAA’s own, official streaming solution. It carries all games, plus highlights and brackets, but with one huge caveat. After 3 hours of “previewing,” you’ll be required to log into your cable provider.
CBS All Access is another half-measure. It’s cheap ($5.99 with some commercials / $9.99 with none), but you’ll only be able to see the games broadcast on CBS. Granted, that does cover a handful of games as well as the Championship, but you might miss out on earlier games from your favorite teams if they’re on TBS, TNT, or TruTV.
ESPN does not air any March Madness games, so if you have ESPN+ it won’t be much good for anything but catching highlights on Sports Center.
How do I follow my favorite March Madness team?
There’s no real trick to following your team or teams. Just watch their Round 1 game and hope they continue to advance in the brackets.
Should your team be lucky enough to make it to the Final Four or even the Championship game, however, there’s a very cool feature called TeamCast worth checking out. For the TBS broadcast of the Final Four, or the CBS broadcast of the Championship game, you’ll hear the standard, impartial game-calling and color commentary. But tune into TruTV or TNT during those same games and you’ll hear commentary stacked in favor of either team, usually featuring people with special connections to that team.
Will I get any work done during March Madness?
Sadly, no. For basketball fans, it’s a frantic, glorious, stretch of time that we would not trade for anything—least of all a pile of work. Opening weekend alone is 48 games, or approximately 96 hours of broadcasts. Studies have shown that March Madness accounts for about $1.9 billion in lost productivity for businesses. It’s not hard to see why. Happy viewing.