A Cord Cutter’s Guide to Watching Every Game in the tournament on the cheap
For sports fans and cord-cutters alike, picking how to watch March Madness is only second to getting your bracket in order.
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is back in 2021, a year after COVID-19 knocked out last year’s tournament just hours before tip off.
With Selection Sunday on March 14 nearly upon us, it’s time to put together a plan for watching games. The NCAA announced in January that the entire 2021 championship will be played in Indiana. The majority of the 67 games will be in Indianapolis.
Getting all the channels necessary for March Madness isn’t that complicated — so long as you know your options.
The good news for cord-cutters? There are a few ways to legally watch CBS for free or on the cheap.
CBS will carry 24 games, including most of the key matchups. CBS is broadcasting Selection Sunday, first and second rounds, Sweet 16 (afternoon games only), Elite Eight (Monday’s games), the Final Four and National Championship.
What other channels do you need to watch March Madness 2021?
For streaming enthusiasts, there are live TV services that have all four channels needed to watch the tournament from end to end.
The important factor to be aware of is the streaming landscape has changed since 2020. Not every live TV service has the required channels for March Madness this year.
A core group of channels needed to watch March Madness games left fuboTV’s channel lineup on July 1, 2020. TNT, TBS and truTV — owned by WarnerMedia — are no longer on fuboTV because the two companies could not come to a new agreement to continue carrying the networks.
Vidgo, a newer live TV start-up, also lacks the Turner channels needed for March Madness games.
The March Madness Live app continues to be less useful for cord cutters wanting to watch live CBS games for free on a TV. (See explainer below.)
Most live TV services have a wide range of support from popular streaming devices such as Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast with Google TV and Roku. Smart TVs with software from Android TV, Roku or Amazon Fire TV will work just fine. And other Smart TV makers including LG and Samsung have software that support live TV services as well.
Watch March Madness games free using a TV antenna
A TV antenna is a key piece of hardware that’s often overlooked by most people, especially sports fans. Remember, any sporting event, including NCAA basketball, is available for free if it’s being carried by a local broadcast station such as CBS.
No internet connection or streaming hardware required.
If you live near any large city, there’s a really good chance that you can get a number of HD channels (including CBS) for free. You just need to connect a TV antenna to the coax port in the rear of your TV and scan for over-the-air channels under settings.
You can use a free online tool on the AntennasDirect site to find local broadcast towers. The transmitter tool requires you to type in your zip code, and recommends antennas based on your proximity to broadcast towers.
What if I can’t use a TV antenna?
If a TV antenna doesn’t work for you, cord cutters still have a couple of options to get CBS outside of a cable TV subscription.
The non-profit streaming service Locast.org is now in 29 large and small markets across the U.S. The service live streams over-the-air channels that are publicly available through a TV antenna.
Like subscription-based live TV services, Locast has apps on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV devices such as Google Chromecast and TiVo devices.
The company says it has made local TV channels available to approximately 161 million viewers, and currently boasts 2.3 million users. Last month, Locast announced expanding its coverage into Sacramento and the greater metro area, including Stockton and Modesto.
Locast has been mired in court challenges by network broadcasters and their parent companies ViacomCBS, NBC, FOX and ABC (Disney). But for now, Locust is still running and perfectly legal until a court says otherwise. At issue is an interpretation of the Copyright Act of 1976.
CBS on Paramount+
Paramount+ just bloomed from the roots of CBS All Access. You can still live stream all games broadcast on local CBS stations.
A subscription is $5.99 per month. Paramount+ already has movies and TV shows from CBS, BET, Comedy Central, MTV and BET.
The price for the ad-supported plan is expected to drop to $4.99 per month by summer.
Paramount+ is currently offering a free trial that lasts 7-days, You can also get a one-month free trial of the commercial free plan (usually $9.99 per month) by using the coupon code MOUNTAIN at checkout.
March Madness 2021: Streaming Options
Sling Blue (47+ channel lineup) has TBS, TNT and truTV, but lacks CBS. A subscription is $35 per month. There is a free 3-day trial. But the real bargain is when you pay for a brief, two-month subscription so you get a free streaming device.
If you can fill in the CBS gap using a TV antenna, Locast or Paramount+, then you’re in the cheapest lane for watching every March Madness game across four channels without a cable TV subscription.
Hulu with Live TV (65+ channel lineup) is more expensive at $64.99 per month. But you’ll get all four channels you’ll need for March Madness — TBS, TNT, truTV, and local CBS stations — in one place.
ESPN, A&E, CNN are part of the Hulu + Live TV lineup. Subscribers get Hulu’s on-demand streaming service that people usually pay $5.99 per month for.
So if you’re already a subscriber to Hulu’s on-demand service, the live TV option probably makes the most sense. Bundling streaming services can save you money. Hulu on-demand can also take advantage of the free week-long trial offered to new customers.
And if you already subscribe to Disney+ or ESPN+, then you can also bundle Hulu+ Live TV as part of the Disney+ bundle.
Bundling Hulu’s live TV package with Disney+ and ESPN saves $5.99 per month compared to subscribing to each service separately.
YouTube TV (85+ channel lineup) has CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV for $64.99 per month.
Local ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS stations are available across the U.S. Big Ten Network, FS1, FS2 and four different ESPN channels round out sports. A subscription has unlimited Cloud DVR. You can stream on up to three screens at once.
YouTube TV is available on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast with Google TV and Apple TV. You can also watch games on your mobile app or a PC. YouTube TV has a free 7-day trial.
AT&T TV (65+ channels) has the “Entertainment bundle”, which costs $69.99 per month. It’s a pricer option for watching March Madness, but has all the required channels, including CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV. Subscribers get 20 hours of Cloud DVR and 40,000 on-demand shows.
AT&T TV also has ESPN, Nickelodeon and HGTV. You’ll be able to stream live TV on Roku, Apple TV or Fire TV at home, and a smartphone if you’re not at home. AT&T TV has a no contract option.
Can I use the March Madness Live app to watch games for free?
Games airing on CBS will be free on the March Madness Live app, but only on the web and mobile devices.
“On OTT platforms, the CBS games are only available in Paramount+,” Annie Rohrs, a CBS Interactive spokesperson, said by email.
This practice is consistent with the 2019 season, and what was planned for March Madness in 2020 before it was cancelled.
The March Madness app can be used to watch all games with a cable TV authentication.
What’s the best way to stream March Madness without Cable?
A combination of over-the-air and streaming live TV is the ideal way to go. And for many, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Mapping out a game plan for watching every March Madness game this year may not be as simple as picking up a remote control and turning on the game. But it’s still cheaper than cable.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble