Tennis' Changing of the Guard

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Novak Djokovic’s dismantling of Rafael Nadal during the Wimbledon final solidified a changing of the guard atop the tennis world.  So did ESPN’s defeat of Comcast’s NBC Sports Group for U.S. media rights to The Championships.

In what turned out to be its final stroke, NBC’s telecast of Nole’s four-set win over Rafa on July 3 ended a 43-year run with the All England Club. “Breakfast at Wimbledon,” a staple of early summer TV scheduling since 1979, will transfer from the Peacock to the worldwide leader, beginning next summer.

During a July 5 conference call with the media, All England Club chief executive Ian Ritchie talked about ESPN’s promotional capabilities and a consistent voice as winning plays for The Championships.

“We felt it was very important to have a single narrative across the two weeks of the Championship, and we believed that we’ve achieved that by this deal,” he said.” If you couple that with the production strength, and promotional strengths, particularly across a multi platform delivery as we have with ESPN, we believe that the story of the Championships will reach the maximum number of people.”

Ritchie’s opening comments also alluded to the importance of live, something that NBC has been widely derided for, relative to holding back or showing weekday matches on tape delay in deference to the profitability of Today. Under the NBC Sports Group proposal, which would have put Versus on Centre Court for much of the action, full live coverage wouldn’t have commenced until the 2014 fortnight.

“I think important for us as well has been the essential nature of live coverage,” he said. “We want to see as many games live on TV as we can manage, and we think that again gets across the message of the Championship.

Later in his opening remarks, Ritchie finally turned to what many, including NBC, felt was the crux of the crumpet: “…the Club as a whole has always looked at tradition as well as innovation. We also look very carefully at all factors, not just money. This has been a deal that’s born great account to all the factors that I’ve just talked about, of which, money is only one, but by no means is the preeminent one.”

Indeed, NBC in acknowledging the loss of the property on July 3, evidently thought otherwise saying: “While we would have liked to have continued our relationship, we were simply outbid.”

That view makes lots of sense and pence: $480 million over 12 years, represents a 74% increase over the combined $23 million –$13 million for NBC, $10 million for ESPN (the new deal supersedes the final two years of its extant contract) — over the programmers’ annual allocation.  That’s a lot of strawberries and cream, a punnet of which held steady at £2.50 during the 2011 event.

While the deal continues the migratory trend of high-profile sports event to cable, it marks a sea change in the tennis realm. A sport that attracts a relatively modest, but well-heeled group of viewers, most U.S. tennis coverage over the years drifted from broadcast to first ESPN and then Tennis Channel, which, as of this writing, was still looking to net a renewal for its Wimbledon Primetime programming pact with the All England Club.

Still, the big matches from the majors — save for the Australian, the least important of the Slams — remained on broadcast. Although NBC and CBS will continue to show the marquee matches from the French and Flushing Meadow, respectively, tennis’ ultimate crown jewel will now coruscate solely on the newer medium, albeit on ESPN, not sister service, ESPN2, whose attendant sobriquet is “home of the Slams,” or broadcast brethren ABC, save for encores and recap shows.

For ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper, the rights game, in this case for the world’s top grass court tourney, continues to be played across multiple surfaces.

“We are interested in the totality of the audience. We, like everybody else, get excited when we can aggregate a large audience for a single three-hour match…But we are much more interested in what we can aggregate around a thousand hours, and what the total audience and hopefully that’s what advertisers care about and rights-holders care about. What are the total number of people you can deliver to us over a large body of matches and hours? And I have no doubt that the overall audience and total audience will go up over time. That’s what we care about. It’s a little bit it’s becoming a little anachronistic just to look at what the three-hour television audience was… I mean, last year on the World Cup, everybody looks at the television rating compared to what it had done before. We were fortunate it was up close to 50%. But the greater increase was the audience on mobile and Internet devices, which is usually not included as part of the apples-to- apples comparison. We’re pretty confident that more people will watch the final next year. Whether more people will watch the final next year on television, I’m less confident of. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Still for at least one sports executive the broadcast passing shot does: “What does it say about tennis that its preeminent event isn’t worthy of network coverage?”

Indeed, the deal gives the Bristol behemoth rights to all of the marquee matches for a second tennis major, complementing its coverage from Down Under with the Australian Open. As is the case with golf — ESPN has early-round rights to The Masters, and U.S. Open, plus complete coverage from The Open Championship, aka The British Open — the programmer doesn’t play that hard with tennis, only with the sport’s best events. Indeed, its tennis schedule also include some rights to the so-called fifth majors, Indian Wells and Sony Ericsson Open (as well as the U.S. Open series).

Having full Wimbledon rights also helps ESPN fuel the insatiable needs of broadband service ESPN3.com — 650 hours from the just concluded tournament –and its myriad mobile apps. As Skipper said on the conference call, “We’re getting dangerously close to 1,000 hours of live tennis during the two weeks.”

And for $40 million — less than 1% of the estimated $5.4 billion it collects in annual subscriber license fees, ESPN keeps another property away — its $3 billion Pac 12 gambit with Fox also topped the Comcast bid — from NBC Sports Group, which is looking to buttress Versus beyond the benefits of its 10-year, $2 billion NHL renewal and the addition of U.S. media rights to the 2014-20 Olympic Games for some $4.4 billion.

Like Nole, tapping his racquet in recognition of a sterling point by an opponent, ESPN’s Wimbledon shot was well-struck.

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