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What I learned on my first college football Saturday as a cord cutter

Live sports without cable TV isn’t as different as you might think. And that can have serious ramifications across college sports.
After years of complex Internet-to-TV setups and multiple streaming boxes, it seems the tech has finally caught up with the dream of cutting the cable cord, as several companies, such as Roku and TiVo, have begun offering devices specifically geared to cord cutters.
Published Oct. 21

LUTZ — My breaking point came on Masters Sunday.

Instead of watching Tiger Woods’ historic win at Augusta, I was watching … nothing. My cable TV and internet had gone out, again, on a beautiful April day.

Live sports was the only reason I had been tolerating cable’s skyrocketing rates and worse-than-the-DMV customer service. But if cable was preventing me from watching one of the biggest sporting events of the year live, that argument fell apart.

So I cut the cord.

I hadn’t missed cable during the last six months of 30 Rock binge-fests and Bachelorette Mondays, but Saturday was going to be the biggest challenge of my cable-free life.

Could streaming handle a college football Saturday spent on my couch?

• • •

The first thing to know about cord cutting as a sports fan is that it isn’t as different as you might think.

Our Roku stick acts like a cable box, but instead of sitting under the TV, it plugs clandestinely into the side. Hulu Live uses our basic high-speed internet to provide every college sports channel I could want (except the Pac-12 Network, which is unseen by almost everyone west of the Rockies).

Total cost, including taxes and fees: $107 a month — $35 cheaper than our final cable bill.

There are, however, some drawbacks, and I encountered the two biggest ones less than 10 minutes into Saturday’s noon games.

The first happened on South Carolina’s opening drive against Florida. On my TV, running back Tavien Feaster lost 7 yards on his third-and-goal fumble, forcing the Gamecocks to settle for a field goal.

But on Twitter, that was old news. The officials had already announced an offside penalty on Gators defensive lineman Luke Ancrum, according to tweets from the press box. The defensive stand didn’t count.

Um, spoiler alert?

South Carolina's Mon Denson (34) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown against Florida, right after a penalty nullified a third-down stop. [MIC SMITH | AP]

There’s always a lag between when something happens at the stadium and when it shows up on your TV. With cable, the difference is usually about seven seconds. With my streaming setup, it was about 45 on Saturday. By the time a play appeared on my screen, fans at the game and neighbors with cable were already watching the next one.

This issue has one easy work-around: Stay off social media. But that won’t prevent an ill-timed text message from a friend, nor will it prevent the other recurring problem with cord cutting.

Buffering.

If you’ve ever watched a video online, you know the feed occasionally stalls or takes time to load. It’s the same with streaming to your TV.

For Hulu Live, buffering looks like a black screen with a gray bar loading in the center. The first one Saturday lasted less than 30 seconds before the feed returned, back to where it was before the pause.

I experienced a few other annoyances, too. There’s no previous channel button, so toggling between games requires a couple extra clicks —not ideal when quickly flipping between the ends of Wisconsin-Illinois and Miami-Georgia Tech.

Pausing is easy for a snack break, but the feed randomly jumped back when I tried to fast forward or bounce between games. I had to sit through parts of the Miami debacle twice, as if the first time wasn’t bad enough.

But my cord-free experience held up well overall. Aside from a few quick glitches, the picture quality is comparable to cable. When Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw a ridiculous pass into the end zone, I could clearly see receiver Justyn Ross get a foot down. Streaming the six-overtime chaos at Virginia Tech felt no different than watching the insanity on cable.

And that, believe it or not, could have serious ramifications for the future of the sport.

Georgia Tech linebacker Demetrius Knight II (17), defensive lineman Sylvain Yondjouen (32) and running back Jamious Griffin (22) pose as after beating Miami 28-21 in overtime. [WILFREDO LEE | AP]

• • •

The last round of conference realignment revolved around TV markets. The Big Ten added lowly Rutgers to force New York cable providers to carry its network. More network subscribers meant more money for the league, regardless of how many people in New York actually watched Rutgers lose to Minnesota.

Cord cutters like me are already changing that calculus. And as technology causes the gap between streaming and cable to shrink, that calculus will evolve even more.

If network subscribers aren’t the most important metric, how much will the Big 12 care that USF provides the nation’s No. 11 TV market? Will leagues care more about raw viewership, wherever it’s from? And what about other factors, like online impressions, Google search data and fervent fan bases willing to pay extra for more content?

The answers are probably years away still. But after my first successful cable-free college football Saturday, I’m ready to find out.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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