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Even an NFL Sunday Ticket Won't Stop Game Blackouts: How VPNs Can Help

Here's the easiest way to stream games live with a virtual private network.

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
Rae Hodge
7 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

If your internet service provider drops the ball and assigns you an IP address that's nowhere near your actual location, even a premium sports streaming subscription might not be enough to protect you from an incorrect game blackout. But a quality virtual private network can quickly fix an IP address geoblocking error and get you back in the game -- all while protecting your high-definition playback from being speed-throttled by your ISP.

Mistaken or incorrect blackouts are so common that instructions on fixing the issue can be found on official sites for ESPN, the MLB, NHL, NFL and NBA. For sports fans who stream games online, most blackouts are now enforced by checking your IP address for its relative geographic origin. So if your mobile carrier or internet service provider issues you a dynamic IP address based inside a blackout area, the sports streaming site you're trying to watch may mistakenly prevent you from tuning into your game. 

"Your location is determined by your IP Address. If you are connecting with a mobile device and believe you are incorrectly receiving blackout messaging, try connecting via WiFi," ESPN says on its blackout page

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Long-time MLB watchers have felt the frustration of confusing game blackouts for years now, as broadcasting regulations have shifted from their 2014 US standards and new broadcast contracts have taken root. On its troubleshooting page for incorrect blackout errors, the MLB even points out that VPNs -- common among sports streaming fans -- should be set to your correct, nonblackout area. 

"If you are accessing the Internet through a VPN connection (or other secure network connection), you might be getting a blackout message because the host IP Address for the VPN is within the restricted range for the game that you are trying to access," the site says.

While the MLB's broadcasting tangle may have gotten more attention over the years, the NFL and NBA have similarly struggled with geoblocking broadcast issues. As have hockey fans -- who seem to have some of the most complicated blackout schedules to navigate. 

While ISPs and cable providers scurry to catch up with better geotech, you don't have to wait around. Here's how to use a VPN to overcome inaccurate blackout restrictions. 

1. Choose the right VPN for sports streaming 

Picking the VPN that best fits your own sports streaming habits is as simple as answering three questions. First, what device am I most likely to use while watching a game? Second, do I plan to stream games internationally? And, finally, are fast speeds important to me? 

As our current Editors' Choice, ExpressVPN has a suite of qualities most sports streamers will find useful across all of the above criteria. The VPN's platform compatibility is exceptional, including its support of a long list of streaming consoles and smart TVs. Its impressive fleet of 3,000-plus servers, spread across 160 locations in 94 countries, also means you can find viable IP addresses in more locations than most VPNs offer. 

To top it off, ExpressVPN's speeds are some of the fastest we've measured. Its custom Lightway encryption protocol also helps protect your connection against sudden drops and interruptions -- no matter the quality of your home internet connection. Both features make it useful for data-intensive tasks like live high-definition streaming where every second of the slow-mo counts. 

As you have a look at the other VPNs we recommend, keep an eye out for those criteria above: device compatibility, a large enough network to ensure a viable IP address and a solid speed-testing score for smooth viewing.

Read more: Best VPN for Your Smart TV

2. Install your VPN and connect to a server where the game is currently available

Once you've picked a VPN to suit your tastes and signed up for service, the rest is easy. All of the VPNs in our list of recommended providers have a straightforward way to download their VPN apps directly from their websites. And for any VPN to earn our recommendation, it has to provide subscribers with convenient and friendly customer service. 

Installing a VPN on your smart TV often feels a little more cumbersome -- using a remote is always less convenient than a quick mouse-click or phone-tap. That's why CNET has a few articles to help if you're in unfamiliar territory. Check out our super simplified guide to setting up a VPN on your smart TV where we've listed five easy ways you can get going. 

Are you an Amazon Fire TV stick fan? No problem. Plenty of solid VPNs are Fire TV compatible and we've got a guide to make the setup process easy. 

Read more: How to Set Up a VPN on Your Amazon Fire TV Stick 

3. Connect to a server and sign into your streaming account

Once you've downloaded and installed the VPN on your viewing device, all you have to do is open the VPN app and pick your city where your game is available. Simple. 

Then, sign into your subscription sports streaming account as you normally would. And -- just like that! -- you should have no problems watching the game as you normally would. 

Quick fixes for common problems

You've installed a VPN, picked your city inside the VPN app and signed into your service -- but you're still getting a blackout message? No need to be frustrated yet. First, try one of these 30-second quick fixes. 

  • If you've installed your VPN on a smart TV, fully sign out of your sports streaming service, then completely close out of all apps and totally restart the TV. Once you turn the TV back on, the first thing you should open is your VPN app and select the city you want. That sets the stage so your subscription sports streaming service will receive your VPN's IP address first. Now try to open your streaming service and sign in.
  • If you've installed the VPN on your laptop, tablet or phone, you'll want to sign out of your streaming services, close out of all browsers, and turn off any GPS location service you've got active. Then reopen your browser and clear all cookies and cache. Then close your browser, completely restart your device, and -- before you open any other app -- open your VPN and connect to the desired city. After that, you can open your browser or other apps and sign into your streaming service. If you need a refresher, here's how to clear your browser cache on mobile and on Google Chrome. (We have a matching guide for iPhone users.)

Still having trouble? Don't hesitate to ping customer service. Seriously. This is one of the most common uses for any VPN. If you're paying for a premium service with 24/7 customer support, there's nothing more satisfying than having a pro help quickly fix a midgame streaming problem -- before the commercial break is even over.


What types of blackouts are there?

There are several different blackout types mostly found across Canada, India, the UK and the US. In the US, some blackouts are used as a way to make sure local broadcasters get first dibs on the right to air locally played games; other blackouts are targeted at viewers in a bid to drive up the purchase of cable TV packages; and still other blackouts (like NFL game blackouts) are aimed at driving up attendance in the stands.

Is it legal to use a VPN to watch sports games?

Yes! Using a VPN to watch or stream sports games is legal in any country where VPNs are legal, including the US and Canada, as long as you've got a legitimate subscription to the service you're streaming. And using a VPN to assign yourself an IP address that correctly reflects your actual location is unlikely to draw the ire of a streaming site. However, if you're considering using a VPN to circumvent game blackouts while you're physically located in a blackout area, you should know the risks. Subscribers to services from ESPN, MLB, NBA, NHL and others should check the Terms of Service documents. Most of those organizations openly state on their websites that if you are caught trying to deceive the service to circumvent a blackout, you could face account termination and a fine from the company.

Why should I use a VPN to stream sports?

Using a VPN to stream your subscription sports games can help you out in a few key ways. First, it's the easiest way to overcome inaccurate game blackouts if your ISP has issued you an IP address that's in the wrong city. If you've ever noticed that your internet speed seems to slow down during popular games, you may be the victim of internet speed throttling by your ISP -- another problem that a VPN quickly solves. And, finally, a VPN protects your privacy by thwarting many third-party data brokers and advertising trackers. That means no more creepy ads after the game. Score.

Do NFL Sunday Ticket and Game Pass subscribers have blackout games?

Yes, NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers are subject to game blackouts. For those subscribers through DirecTV, you will be restricted from watching certain games played in your local area. In other cases, you face game blackouts if ESPN and TNT have secured broadcasting rights to the game you want to watch. If a game fails to sell out 72 hours before kickoff, the game could be blacked-out in its local market. You should be able to see all games outside of your local broadcast market -- unless your local Fox or CBS station is showing it.

Yes, NFL Game Pass subscribers are affected by blackouts. According to the NFL's blackout site, regulations in the UK and Ireland mean certain games are subject to weekly blackouts. However, those games will be available after 24 hours. And during the postseason, there are no blackout restrictions.

Do NBA League Pass members have blackout games?

Yes, NBA League Pass subscribers in both the US and Canada are also subject to blackout games. The NBA says this is because local and national content providers in the US have certain exclusive rights to televise live games and content. Blackout restrictions can include your local NBA team and all nationally televised games. However, blacked-out games will be available for viewing after the game has concluded.

Do MLB.TV and MLB Extra Innings subscribers have blackout games?

Yes. A very loud yes. For a full run-down of the MLB's complex blackout policy, you can check out the MLB.TV Help Center's blackout explainers. The long and short of it is this: The MLB.TV subscription might come with major fan perks, but it doesn't come with anti-blackout features.