How to catch March Madness without paying for cable TV

Our cord-cutter's guide will show you how you can watch every game in the tournament for free.

basketball on court
Credit: Thinkstock

For millions of sports fans, brackets, not baseball, herald the arrival of spring. With its big upsets, Cinderella stories, and weird mascots, the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship has transcended sports to become a cultural event.

But it’s a bittersweet time for cord cutters. If the logistics of following 68 teams through a month-long tournament aren’t arduous enough, nearly 70 percent of games are televised on cable channels. That includes the championship game, which for the first time in its 78-year history will air on a pay network.

This year all 67 games will be broadcast across four networks: CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV. Based on the current schedule, we’ve put together a strategy that will allow you to watch every minute of March Madness live without a cable subscription. The options below will take you although the way through to the title game on April 4.

Catch CBS games over the air

The network will broadcast 21 games in the first and second rounds, the Sweet 16, and the Elite 8. CBS is splitting the last over that weekend with TBS, with its games beginning on Saturday, March 26, at 3 p.m. ET.

Rabbit ears TV antenna Thinkstock

You can catch the 21 games on CBS with only an antenna.

The good news is all you need to watch these games is a good antenna. Don’t have one? RCA has teamed with Sling TV on a promotion that gives you 10 days of free Sling TV service when you buy a new antenna. That’s worth considering because…

Sling is the thing for Turner telecasts

Turner Sports will air 46 games this year: 21 on TBS, 13 on TruTV and 12 on TNT. Most of the action is on the flagship station, including Sweet Sixteen, Elite 8 (which it's splitting over a weekend with CBS), Final Four, and the National Championship. It will also televise select first and second round contests.

TruTV and TNT will televise earlier round matchups. Each will also provide “Team Stream” coverage of the Final Four and National Championship. These original telecasts, sponsored by Bleacher Report, are tailored for each of the competing teams, with separate broadcasters, alternate viewing angles, and school specific content.

Sling TV press conference Martyn Williams

Sling TV’s Best of Live TV package will get you all the Turner Sports broadcasts.

Sling TV helped fill in the postseason gaps for cord-cutting NBA fans, and it’s just as essential for college-hoops lovers. As part of the $20-per-month Best of Live TV package, you get TNT and TBS. Sling TV is also throwing in TruTV—normally only available as part of the $5 Lifestyle Extra package—free for the duration of the tournament. If that’s not enough to satisfy your basketball jones, you can add the Sports Extra package for an additional $5 a month and get more college coverage via ESNPU and SEC Network.

If a pay-TV subscription makes you squeamish, remember that Sling TV requires no contract so you can easily cancel once the tournament ends.

Streaming options

Thanks to the nature of sports broadcasting contracts, streaming options remain slim. There are a couple of ways to for stream tournament games live, though each has its caveats.

One is Sony’s PlayStation Vue, which launched a year ago as an alternative to costly cable subscriptions. With its high monthly fee and big bundle of channels, though, it looked a lot like the model it claimed it was combatting.

Sony recently cut its prices, however, and the basic $40 monthly package offers 60 channels including CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV. Still, that’s double the cost of Sling TV. And it’s currently only available in Chicago, Boston, New York, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. We wouldn’t suggest rushing out and subscribing to PlayStation Vue just to watch March Madness, but if you’re already a user you can watch the entire tournament via your Playstation console, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, or iPad.

ncaa march madness live NCAA

NCAA March Madness Live streams all 67 tournament games, but you’ll still need a cable subscription to view most of them.

The other option is NCAA March Madness Live. The NCAA is once again offering all 67 games for free through the app. In addition to the game streams, the app offers live scores and stats, an interactive bracket, classic March Madness videos, game notifications, and curated social content. This year the app expands to 12 platforms: desktop, Amazon Fire tablets, Amazon Fire TV, iPhone, iPad, Android handset, Android tablet, Windows handset, Windows desktop, Apple TV, Apple Watch, and Roku players.

The claim that you can watch the entire tournament with NCAA March Madness Live is misleading, though. While anyone can view the CBS broadcasts with the app, users require an active cable subscription to log in and watch any of the Turner Sports streams. Still, it’s worth downloading if you don’t want to miss any of the CBS matchups when you’re away from a TV.

Time for tip off

Watching sports without cable is still more of a challenge than other TV content. But don’t let cutting the cord make you miss the NCAA champs cutting the net. Take advantage of these cable alternatives and you’ll have sideline seat for one the greatest sporting events of the year.

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