In this work, we propose finite element schemes for the numerical approximation of nematic liquid crystal flows, based on a saddle-point formulation of the director vector sub-problem. It introduces a Lagrange multiplier that allows to enforce the sphere condition. In this setting, we can consider the limit problem (without penalty) and the penalized problem (using a Ginzburg–Landau penalty function) in a unified way. Further, the resulting schemes have a stable behavior with respect to the value of the penalty parameter, a key difference with respect to the existing schemes. Two different methods have been considered for the time integration. First, we have considered an implicit algorithm that is unconditionally stable and energy preserving. The linearization of the problem at every time step value can be performed using a quasi-Newton method that allows to decouple fluid velocity and director vector computations for every tangent problem. Then, we have designed a linear semi-implicit algorithm (i.e. it does not involve nonlinear iterations) and proved that it is unconditionally stable, verifying a discrete energy inequality. Finally, some numerical simulations are provided.