Tip of the Week: Can You Watch Football for Free Online?

Q. I've seen websites that advertise streaming the games online for free. What do you think of these sites? Are they legitimate? Is the picture quality good? And should I be concerned about possible computer viruses? — Tom from Manchester

A. I'm excited that football season has finally arrived. Here in Phoenix, it means we'll be through with triple-digit temperatures soon, plus the Cardinals are looking good so far this year. Having friends over to watch a game is one of the best parts of the season.

Of course, it's not so fun when you're paying an arm and a leg to watch. So, I can understand why you're searching for an inexpensive option.

It seems like everything streams online these days. You can watch many of your favorite TV shows and movies. Sites like Hulu even help you access some programs free.

So, you'd expect to be able to watch football. It's certainly one of the most popular things on TV, and many sites do advertise free streaming of NFL Football.

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The unfortunate fact is that none of these sites are genuine. That isn't to say you don't get to watch the game. It just won't be legal.

Why should you care? First, you can get in trouble with your service provider, which means you might lose your Internet privileges. Also, the streaming video quality is usually terrible. It especially gets corrupted during fast-paced action -- the very thing you most want to watch! You often can't even tell what's going on. And yes, anytime you visit a questionable website, the risk of exposing your computer to viruses is more likely.

Not surprisingly, the NFL is very particular about how its content is broadcast. It has very lucrative deals with major distributors and service providers. If the programming is given away for free, they lose a lot of revenue. So, of course, they are doing all they can to keep that from happening.

There are some legitimate ways to watch NFL games and be sure you'll have a good viewing experience.

In the United States, DirecTV has the NFL Sunday Ticket. It brings you out-of-market, non-nationally televised games along with pre-game shows and statistic tracking.

To receive it, you'll need to be a DirecTV subscriber. Plus, Sunday Ticket costs $340 on top of the basic charge. So, it is a fairly costly option. You may want to watch for promotional offers. DirecTV does occasionally offer Sunday Ticket free to new subscribers.

For an additional $50, Sunday Ticket subscribers can add the To-Go feature. This lets you stream the games to your computer or mobile gadget. Sunday Ticket is also available as an app on Motorola's Xoom and Samsung's Galaxy tablets. That's handy to have when you can't make it home in time for kick-off.

If you have DirecTV and a PlayStation 3, you can turn your PS3 into a second DirecTV receiver for just $50. So that's another viewing option.

And, if you don't have DirecTV but do have a PS3, you can use it to view NFL Sunday Ticket by purchasing an app. Of course, the app will still cost you $340, so you only save the cost of the basic subscription.

Starting September 1st, there will also be an online-only package. This streams Sunday Ticket to your PC and mobile gadgets. You don't need a DirecTV subscription or a PS3. However, it will set you back $10 more, at $350.

Speaking of streaming media, you might consider getting something like the Slingbox. This gadget streams TV to your mobile gadgets. You can watch any show or game anywhere ­- and from any provider.

Back to football-viewing options, many games are offered through the NFL Network channel. You can order this from your cable or satellite provider. This channel carries all the preseason games. It also offers weekly season games and hosts the popular show, NFL Total Access. Plus, it has NFL replay, which airs the five best games of the week.

Some people are even more passionate about college football than NFL games. ESPN 3 is a great place to go for college football. You can get a GamePlan subscription through your cable or satellite provider. It costs $135 for the regular season, but doesn't include bowl games.

With a GamePlan pass, you can watch ESPN 3 online through supporting Internet providers. It can also be streamed over an Xbox 360. That's handy for watching it on your TV.

It's important to note, however, that ESPN 3 online viewing isn't available to everyone. Some service providers don't offer it, while there are others that provide it free for their customers. You'll want to check with your Internet provider to clarify your options.

Of course, if you don't want to spring for special channels and packages, major networks on basic cable, specifically FOX and NBC, typically carry weekly games. Plus, your subscription might already include sports networks like Fox Sports or ESPN.

ESPN is home to the famous Monday Night Football. Games kick off on Sep. 12 this year.

You can also watch games on major networks via over-the-air broadcasts. For that, you'll need an antenna and a digital receiver. Any recent TV should include a built-in digital receiver.

So that just leaves buying an HDTV antenna. Costs vary depending on the difficulty of receiving an over-the-air signal where you live.

What if you want to go totally online? The NFL offers a service called Preseason Live. For $20, you can watch every preseason game in high-definition.

Then there's Game Rewind. It lets you watch games after they've gone out live. For $40 you can get a season subscription. You can watch every regular-season game online in high-definition and commercial-free. There is also a $20 monthly subscription option.

Game Rewind includes controls for pausing and rewinding. You don't have to worry about missing a second. It also settles many arguments. Game Rewind also lets you jump right to the big plays. This is handy if you don't have time to watch the entire game.

Of course, you probably don't want to be limited to only watching games on your computer. Fortunately, it isn't hard to hook your computer to your TV. Find out how to do it here.

With some of these packages, you'll get access to every game available. That's a lot of content to wade through. Not every game will be amazing. You might also be deciding whether to watch after a game has already aired.

That's where a site like Should I Watch comes in. It tells you if a recorded game is worth watching without spoiling the score.

If you want more free NFL goodness, check out Hulu's NFL page. You can watch past games, highlights and interviews. Just look under your favorite team's name or in the Game of the Week section.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. Get the podcast or find the station nearest you at www.komando.com/listen. Subscribe to Kim's free e-mail newsletters at www.komando.com/newsletters.

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