As a big fan of the NBA (and particularly my adopted home town team, the Golden State Warriors) I was pretty excited to get into this year’s season. While previous seasons have been aided by borrowing the Comcast credentials from a friend and streaming games via the CSN Bay Area channel (laptop to HDMI to TV), the friend in question has now moved away and cancelled their account, and I was stuck trying to work out the best way to watch games. After a bunch of trial and error, I think this is the best way for cord cutters to stream the NBA without being jammed with an extra $400 a year in cable fees.
The awesome NBA League Pass – and its massive flaw
The League Pass service from the NBA is awesome. You can choose to buy a season-long package for a single team or the whole NBA, and you can stream games from lots of different devices – pretty much perfect.
Except for its massive flaw.
I don’t have a lot of spare time, so I tend to just watch the games of the team I follow: the Warriors. Buying a team-pass for $120 comes out to a bit under $20/month (given the length of the regular season), which seems like a fair deal.
As you’d expect, the team play half their games at home, and half their games away through the season. Unfortunately, though, the club (or the NBA?) has done a deal where Comcast (the monopoly Cable TV provider in San Francisco and most of the Bay Area) is the only provider allowed to show games in the San Francisco Bay Area, via their CSN Bay Area channel. This means, after buying the NBA League Pass, 50% of the games I want to watch aren’t available to me – the League Pass service applies a blackout.
I called Comcast (because the NBA League Pass can be provided through your cable provider too) to see whether buying it through them would unlock the blackout, but unfortunately it doesn’t; buying through the cable company is just a reseller billing thing with all the same restrictions. The only way to get all of the games would be to upgrade by package costs by 50% to get the one channel I need, at a cost of around $400 per year. This is only 50% more than buying League Pass, but like most people forced to buy from a monopoly, I’ll do almost anything I can to avoid giving that pack of arseholes any more money on principle alone.
Overcoming the Blackout without a VPN
Now, like any techie out there knows, the strongest solution to this problem is the same solution to ham-fisted online censorship or security/privacy overreach by bone-headed sovereign governments – a VPN.
The effect of a VPN is to take your internet connection here in, say, San Francisco, and tunnel or connect to another country. When your data pops out of that other location, you’ll look like you’re actually in that location, so if you want to get around things like these League Pass blackouts you can use a VPN to appear to be somewhere else.
Unfortunately, there’s a few issues with VPNs, mainly around hassle and performance. The ability to tunnel is cool conceptually, but when you’re trying to stream a real time game in high quality video, having to have all that data go via another country to get into the tunnel (as well as the overhead in encrypting/decrypting it) isn’t ideal. Additionally, most VPN implementations are “all or nothing” affairs, where every bit of traffic going out from your network goes into the tunnel. (Note: while it is possible to define just some traffic to use the VPN via routing tables, the idea of having to keep track of all of the NBA League Pass server addresses to make sure I’m routing the traffic right is more hassle than I’m prepared to put up with).
So, ideally, I was looking to overcome the backout without needing to implement a full VPN if I could help it.
The great news is there is a solution out there, and it can actually save you money too!
Unotelly – overcoming geoblocking/blackouts without a VPN
Unotelly is an inexpensive online service designed specifically to help regular people get around the headaches of this sort of geo-bullshit with a minimum of effort. The way is works is that you update the DNS settings of your device (usually you do this at the router – the thing which connects you to the internet) so that the act of going to a website like watch.nba.com gets tweaked and fools the NBA servers into thinking you’re somewhere else in the world.
The folks at Unotelly have put together a handy guide, and the good news is that it really works well! Basically, once you’ve got the Unotelly service active, you turn on the “South Africa” option in the Dynamo section of their control panel, and then you can go to the NBA League Pass website and sign up for an account.
When you’re signing up to league pass you’ll need to have a postal code for South Africa when getting your account – I used a part of Cape Town (postcode 8001) and it worked fine. It also allowed me to change the billing address on my credit card to be my address here in the US, and while the signup on the NBA site was frankly slow and clunky, it did work in the end.
With Unotelly, I’ve now got the ability to fire up a game in my Chrome browser and then hit the Chromecast option and have it stream in super high quality to my TV. Because I’m not using a VPN, the delivery of the video stream does not go via South Africa – this is just used for the account sign in and auth piece, which means I can watch my Warriors games without any blackout restrictions at all.
Oh, and the saving money bit? Because of the end of the commodities boom and the incompetence/corruption of Jacob Zuma’s government in South Africa, their currency has plummeted around 25% this year. This, combined with the NBA’s choices about what each country can afford to pay means the price of a single-team league pass right now (middle of the season) is less than US$60! So, with 4 months to go I’m spending $15/month with the NBA and $3.50 a month for Unotelly to watch any Warriors game without blackouts.
And there’s more!!!
The great thing about the Unotelly service is that your subscription with it unlocks more than just NBA League Pass – check out my other post on how you can also stream free content from ABC’s iView app (normally restricted just to Australians) using the same Unotelly account.