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Why die-hard sports fans are pulling the plug on cable

Friends watching basketball game in living room

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The math for David Crow's monthly TV bill just didn't seem to make sense.

It was costing him about $140 a month to watch a Formula One race every week or two, a little NHL hockey and NFL football, a few movies and the odd TV show. Of course, he also had 24-7 access to a bounty of other programming, but when he calculated what he was paying per hour of viewing the numbers were disturbing. He decided it was time to stop spending almost $1,700 a year for access to content he would never watch.

So the Toronto man waited for the end of the F1 season and then cancelled his cable.

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"When I looked at my Rogers bill and the price I was paying for the very limited amount of television I was watching I thought there had to be another way," Crow said.

"I justified the entire cable bill for 16 Sunday (Formula One races) a year."

Plenty of sports fans would eagerly pay a few dollars a pop to stream live events a la carte and avoid an expensive TV plan they barely use. While that reality still doesn't exist in a way that completely satisfies a diehard sports fan's needs, new digital products are at least giving some fans a viable alternative to cable.

The Toronto Maple Leafs quietly released a new app last month that streams games on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The app, which costs $19.99, is good for the rest of the season but does not include games broadcast nationally on CBC or TSN because the team doesn't have the rights to transmit those matches. It also only works in the Leafs' broadcast region, which covers most of Ontario except the area the Ottawa Senators control.

It may come as a surprise to Leafs fans that for four years the team has also been offering online streams of games through its website. This season, a 10-game package costs $19.99 while a half-season package was $29.99. The same blackout rules apply, but streams its "Hockey Night in Canada" matches for free, so fans don't have to miss out on too many games.

While those streams are designed to be watched on a computer monitor, many TVs can easily be set up to display the same image.

The Leafs aren't out to compete with cable companies but want to give fans a range of options to watch games, said Chris Hebb, senior vice-president of broadcast and content for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

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"We feel if someone doesn't have a television they should still be able to be a Leafs fan," Hebb said.

"My parents saw the games one way, my son will see them in another. Ultimately, I don't think there is anything that's going to replace conventional television - it's still the king - but what we're trying to do is make sure we use these technologies to reach a demographic that is growing up with them."

Hebb said the new mobile apps haven't been promoted at all because the team sees them as an experiment, which will be fine-tuned for a more official launch next season.

"We've put it up on iTunes just for people to test it out. If it's working well and the experience of the user is good then we'll roll it out in its full-fledged version next season," he said.

"It's been a modest response because we haven't told anyone about it. We don't really know what the response is other than it's early and we'll get to the end of the season and decide if the price point is right. We'll read the comments and see whether people like it or not and then we'll adjust."

He said the next step for MLSE will be streaming Toronto Raptors games and then getting the rights to transmit Toronto FC matches.

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This is the second season that the Vancouver Canucks are streaming their games online - for $2.99 each with the same blackout rules in effect - and the popularity of the service is slowly growing, said the team's chief operating officer, Victor de Bonis.

"It's been probably around 750 to 1,000 viewers per game that are streaming. It builds every game and it's an interesting area," he said.

Earlier this season the Canucks also released a streaming app for Apple devices, for $9.99, making it the first NHL team to do so.

"If you're going to find 1,000 new fans because you have a mobile app, it's worth doing," de Bonis said.

"We're trying to get in as many homes as we can and make the investment to extend to people that don't have a television or aren't able to watch a TV - the classic (example) is if you're at an Italian wedding on Saturday night, now everyone's going to be huddling around their iPhone."

Another option for hockey fans is NHL GameCenter Live, which offers digital streams of games across the league. But you can't watch games in your home market, meaning hockey fans in Ottawa could watch action involving any team except the Senators. GameCenter can also be streamed on some mobile devices and on TVs for users with a PlayStation 3 or Boxee.

Major League Baseball has a similar product, but Canadians are barred from viewing Toronto Blue Jays games. A representative for the Jays did not respond to questions about whether the team would release its own streaming platform.

One downside with streaming lots of video content is the potential to be charged for using too much data, depending on the limitations of your Internet plan.

Both Hebb and de Bonis said they did not know how much data a streamed game consumes, and added that no customers have contacted them for information about the issue.

"I'm just hoping it's not something that turns into a barrier to people being able to receive our games on the device of their choice," Hebb said.

When Crow cut his TV cable bill he sought out an Internet service provider that would give him a large data allowance so he could stream hours of content without paying overage fees. He went with TekSavvy and has 300 gigabytes a month to download and upload. Now he's using a Netflix subscription and digital rentals through Apple to satisfy his TV and movie fix, and he also invested in an antenna to pick up free over-the-air signals, which allowed him to watch the NFL playoffs.

But he's still unsure what he's going to do when the next F1 season begins in the spring. He hopes a digital streaming product becomes available in Canada.

"If I could pay for a live stream of F1, I would do that in an instant."

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