NEW YORK — The good news for football fans: It’s going to be much easier to watch NFL games online this year.

The league is finally dropping a requirement that viewers sign in with a cable or satellite subscription, in hopes of expanding its online audience at a time when TV ratings are declining. Though there are restrictions – no free streaming on smart TVs, for instance – the move marks a significant departure for sports. Other major professional leagues still require TV subscriptions for hometown teams.

The NFL regular season starts Thursday.

“We think people will still want to watch on the biggest screen possible,” said Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief business and media officer.

But as more people drop cable or satellite subscriptions – or never sign up in the first place – the NFL needs to be flexible in order to reach them, Rolapp said. Even those who can watch on TV are preferring phones, he said.

The NFL has been inching toward subscription-free games in recent years. It made a deal with Twitter, then Amazon, to stream a handful of games online. This year, Amazon will offer 11 Thursday night games for free on its Twitch app or on its Prime Video app with a $119-a-year Prime subscription.

Last season, Verizon customers got subscription-free access on phones to whatever CBS or Fox was broadcasting regionally on Sunday afternoons, plus all the nationally televised games on NBC, ESPN and NFL Network. Now, any wireless customer can get them on both phones and tablets. The one restriction: Seven games that are exclusive to the NFL Network channel can be viewed only on phones, not tablets.

The subscription-free games will be available on the NFL app and the Verizon-owned Yahoo Sports, Tumblr and AOL apps in the U.S. On iPhones and iPads, the games can also be streamed on the Safari web browser.

TV networks will still stream games through their apps, but you’ll typically have to sign in with a cable or satellite subscription. That’s how you can get games on smart TVs, including streaming-TV devices such as Apple TV and Roku, as well as on laptops and desktop computers. The network apps will stream games on phones, too, something not available before because of Verizon’s exclusivity.

Cable-like online streaming packages offer yet another option for TVs. Only two major ones have all five football networks: PlayStation Vue for $50 a month, and DirecTV Now for $55. Sling TV offers budget-conscious fans NBC, Fox and NFL Network for $25. Sling TV and others offer four networks for $40 or $45. Some of the over-the-air stations might not be available in your market, especially outside big cities.

STEELERS: Running back Le’Veon Bell’s absence continued Wednesday, meaning he will almost certainly not be available when Pittsburgh opens the season Sunday in Cleveland.

And while his agent Adisa Bakari hinted at a concern Bell would be overworked this season, the men Bell has played with for the past five years are starting to run out of patience.

“Honestly it’s a little selfish,” said center Maurkice Pouncey, a captain who had predicted Bell would arrive by Wednesday. “I’m kind of (ticked) right now.”

SEAHAWKS: Safety Earl Thomas ended his lengthy holdout in time for the start of the regular season, even without the long-term deal he was seeking.

Rookie Shaquem Griffin will start at weakside linebacker when Seattle opens the regular season at Denver on Sunday.

LIONS: The Lions claimed defensive end Romeo Okwara off waivers from the Giants and cut defensive end Anthony Zettel.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.