While the cost of watching live football has soared, armchair fans can now see more games than ever at a lower cost, especially since Disney-owned ESPN snapped up the live rights to Premier League matches previously owned by the now bust Setanta. But to ensure you see the games you want at a price you can afford, it's essential to sign up for the right services. Committed fans may be tempted simply to get the lot. But anyone doing so will face a bill of around £800 for 12 months' worth of live sport. Choose a little more carefully and you could slash the bill to virtually nothing.
The Premier League's first match of the season kicks off at 12.45pm today at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea will take on Hull City. That's on Sky Sports 1, while later on at 5.30pm, Everton's game against Arsenal is being shown live on the new ESPN channel. To watch either game live, you'll need to stump up for a subscription to the respective channels. That'll mean splashing out around £20 a month for Sky Sports and a tenner for ESPN, depending on which company you buy the service through.
But you could watch all 90 minutes of all matches being played today for free through your computer. An estimated million-and-a-half people across the world tune in every Saturday during the season to watch their chosen match live online through illegal websites, which stream live coverage from English games being broadcast live in Asia. The Premier League – through a company called NetResult – has spent much of the summer tracking and shutting down the illegal sites, but more spring up all the time, meaning anyone who is a regular of one of the hundreds of football-related forums and fansites on the web will be able to find out quite easily where they may be able to watch their favourite team live online for free today.
The downsides of doing so isn't just that the activity is illegal, but also the feeds are very unreliable, making the process of supporting your team a lot less fun. If you want to stay inside the law, you can still watch all 90 minutes of your favourite Premier League team's match today – as long as you don't mind waiting a few hours. Subscribers to Sky Sports can choose to watch the full 90 minutes of one of today's games this evening on Sky Sports 1 – but customers of BT Vision can also watch through the service's "near-live" offering of the full 90 minutes from 10pm. Uniquely, you can watch a game on a pay-per-view basis, which can work out a lot cheaper than a subscription if you only want to see a few matches a season. If you want to watch Liverpool v Stoke on 19 August, for instance, it will cost 96p.
For a subscription to the service, you need either to pay £4.89 a month for the Vision Sports package or opt for Sports as one of your viewing packages in Bronze, Silver or Gold packages. But that's on top of the cost of your BT Vision broadband deal.
And that's the key problem when it comes to getting access to football on telly. If you rely on traditional free-to-air channels – and they've certainly improved their live offerings this year – then you'll find it difficult to buy live football on telly without having to stump up for a load of other channels or services that you may not want.
Charlie Ponsonby, CEO of Simplifydigital, an online site that compares the cost of digital television, home phone and broadband packages, says: "Football doesn't come cheap on TV for the die-hard sports fan, but there are savings to be had if you choose your sports package carefully. Most important is identifying which sports or games you want to watch to identify the best deals to suit your needs."
The first question to ask yourself is whether you need to pay for the football you watch at home. Look at what you get for free this season. The BBC is showing 10 live Championship matches, although you've already missed the curtain-raising West Bromwich Albion v Newcastle United game which was broadcast live last Saturday. The BBC will also show League Cup games live, as well as the end-of-season play-offs for the three lower divisions of the league. ITV will show England's World Cup qualifiers live, as well as Champions League games and FA Cup matches.
So without paying a penny, you'll be able to see most of the top clubs in action, albeit not in Premier League matches. On top of the live coverage, there are plenty of football round-up shows, with the BBC introducing The Football League Show on Saturday nights, showing all the goals from the Championship, League One and League Two. That's on top of the regular Match of the Day programme showing Premier League action.
If that doesn't satisfy your need for live action then you'll have to sign up for a package from Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision, Tiscali or Top Up TV. The new ESPN channel is available through all, although the cost varies. For instance, Sky customers who already subscribe to Sky Sports will be charged £9 per month for ESPN. Without a Sky Sports subscription, the price rises to £12 per month.
In fact, the ESPN channel is cheaper when bought as part of a Virgin Media TV package. Indeed, subscribers to Virgin Media's XL TV pack will be able to watch ESPN and ESPN HD at no extra cost. As part of the deal, the subscribers will also receive ESPN Classic, featuring the greatest moments of UK and European sport. Meanwhile, Virgin Media TV customers on the M or L pack will be able to subscribe to ESPN and ESPN HD for £8 a month if they already subscribe to any combination of the Sky Sports channels, or £10 a month if not. As part of a special offer, all Virgin Media customers get ESPN free throughout August.
On BT Vision, ESPN will be available at no additional cost for BT Vision Value Pack (Bronze, Silver or Gold) subscribers who choose the Sports option. The Vision TV packages start at £7.34 for Bronze and £12.23 for Gold for the first three months, and then climbing to £14.68 and £19.57 for the remaining nine months. Next season, BT Vision could be even more attractive to football fans, as Ofcom is expected to force Sky to wholesale Sky Sports to BT, and the company says it would charge around £15 a month for Sky Sports, much cheaper than it is available elsewhere.
Top Up TV customers can subscribe to ESPN for £9.99 per month, and neither service involves paying for extra subscriptions for unwanted channels. Is ESPN worth having? The new channel promises 46 Premier League games this season, plus 23 matches a season from 2010 to 2013. It will also show 30 live Scottish Premier League games and 28 on-demand Rangers or Celtic matches, plus a range of other sports.
On Sky Sports this season, you can see 92 live Premier League matches, as well as 80 Football League matches, and some Champions League games. For a few quid more you could be watching matches in HD! But rather than simply focusing on the cost of the football, it makes more sense to look at the complete package and even bundle up your broadband, television and home phone to cut costs. With the right kind of shopping around, you could cut your current monthly spend on the different services – even when you include the cost of live football.
Charlie Ponsonby says: "Prices change almost every week as all the providers offer new and exciting deals across TV, broadband and home phone. But you also need to look at the quality of service, especially with broadband. There is a huge difference in value for money between broadband providers. Broadband speed is vital, so we strongly encourage customers to consider how much broadband speed they will actually get for their money, before signing up."