Blackouts are one of the most frustrating experiences in the world of television. If you’ve ever gone to tune in to your home team’s game and found it’s not available, you know what we mean.
In a nutshell, a blackout is when a scheduled program does not air in certain markets. This is most common in the world of sports, and when it happens, it means that viewers in certain geographic regions won’t be able to catch that game on television (or via streaming).
It’s possible to get around some blackouts (though not all). In this article, we’ll explore the source of these issues and offer some tips on how to beat them. Let’s jump in!
What content is affected by blackouts?
Sports are the main area of programming affected by blackouts. These blackouts (along with market restrictions) are the result of a complicated web of deals that determine which networks are able to air which games. Specifically, they give local networks, called regional sports networks (RSNs), exclusive rights to air certain games.
Essentially, the rights to games and matches are owned by either the team or the sports network, and they restrict the ways in which events can be viewed. A common example is boxing on HBO, which is unavailable on streaming devices.
The ticket sales of a given game at a local venue also impact blackout restrictions. Sometimes games that haven’t sold out will be blacked out—the intention here is to drive ticket sales, which are generally more profitable for the teams and leagues.
The end result of all this is that fans sometimes have no way of watching a game for their local team on television—it’s available only on select local channels, but those channels are restricted from airing it. Alternatively, those channels might be available only through expensive cable or satellite TV packages. This is a frustrating issue for many sports fans.
It’s somewhat difficult to predict what games are going to be blacked out. Each league tends to have its own rules and restrictions regarding blackouts. The NFL used to be the strictest, but has suspended the rules every year since 2015. Other leagues also have issues, including the MLB, NBA, and MLS.
Blackouts come in a few different flavors: location-based, device-based, and streaming:
- Location-based blackouts: These can be either national or regional. With national blackouts, broadcasting networks like ABC or NBC get the rights to the broadcast and it’s available only on that channel. People who live in a team’s locale may not be able to see it on other channels. Regional blackouts mean the game is locked to a specific region only, and can’t be viewed elsewhere.
- Device-based blackouts: Sometimes games are blocked on certain types of devices, such as mobile phones or streaming TV boxes (like Roku or Chromecast). For example, you may not be able to watch an NFL game on mobile devices.
- Streaming blackouts: These are blanket blackouts for all streaming services, regardless of the device. This is a common issue with boxing matches.
How can you avoid blackouts?
There are relatively few options for sports fans looking to avoid blackouts. Even premium sports packages aren’t immune—NFL SUNDAY TICKET, one of the most comprehensive (and expensive) sports packages on the market, can suffer blackouts. So what can you do? There are two options.
Subscribe to a local television package
The single most impactful thing you can do to avoid blackouts is to subscribe to a television package known for having tons of sports content. That generally means DIRECTV. The sheer number of channels, both national and local, as well as a large amount of broadcast deals, means that DIRECTV seems to suffer less from blackouts, at least anecdotally. Xfinity is also a solid option for sports fans.
Check out our roundup of the best TV providers to learn more.
Use a VPN
If a cable TV subscription isn’t an option for you, or if you still find yourself encountering blackouts, you can consider your other option: using a virtual private network (VPN) to make it look like you’re not in a blackout region.
A VPN is a service that protects your online privacy and secures your internet connection. It does this by routing your internet traffic through an encrypted server and hiding your IP address and geographic location.
As a consequence of that last point, you can use a VPN to make it appear you’re somewhere you’re not, like another state or country. This, in turn, can be used to bypass geographical restrictions and access region-locked content.
At this point, it should be noted that the use of a VPN in this manner may be against the terms of service of whatever streaming services you’re using and could theoretically get you into trouble. Your TV provider might drop you as a customer if it discovers you're using a VPN in theis way.
If you still want to risk it, the process for using a VPN to stream sports involves these steps:
- Choosing a VPN provider that offers multiple server choices, particularly around the United States.
- Connecting to a server in the area the game is being televised.
- Using a streaming service (while connected to the VPN) that carries that game.
Check out our complete guide to VPNs to learn more.
It’s also worth noting that this is not a guarantee that you’ll be able to bypass the blackout—sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Success depends largely on the type of blackout restriction and the specific terms of the rights agreements for that game. Yeah—it's complicated.
Get your game on
If you’re trying to catch the big game and find yourself thwarted by blackouts, you’re not alone. It’s been a problem with sports programming for years. There are some ways around this issue, including a local TV subscription and streaming with a VPN. If you're not sure which route to go, learn more about the differences between cable and streaming TV. While unfortunately none of these options are foolproof, they are great tools to keep in your back pocket for when blackouts strike.
Dave Schafer is a freelance writer with a passion for making technical concepts easy for anyone to understand. He’s been covering the world of gadgets, tech, and the internet for over 8 years, with a particular focus on TV and internet service providers. When he’s not writing, Dave can be found playing guitar or camping with his family and golden retriever, Rosie.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.