More TV Time for U.S. Tennis

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Talk about mixed doubles. The United States Tennis Association, working in conjunction with 10 tourneys and a quartet of networks, has packaged together a U.S. Open Series aimed at building interest for the sport and serving as a viewership boon leading up to the Grand Slam event from Flushing Meadow in New York in late August.

Negotiations continue to add a tourney in San Diego to the mix.

ESPN, along with sister network ESPN2, is taking a lead role in the U.S. Open Series, and will air 92 hours — most of it live — from seven men’s and women’s summer hard-court tennis tournaments leading up to the Open, including six finals.

BASELINE: 100 HOURS

Other network partners include NBC, Fox Sports Net and CBS, which has been the broadcast home to the U.S. Open for 35 years.

All told, the series, running from July 12 through Aug. 29, will encompass 100 hours this summer with these carriers.

The pact with the tournaments and the networks extends through 2007, with various renewal options, USTA chief executive of professional tennis Arlen Kantarian told Multichannel News after a press conference held here announcing the series. Fox Sports Net’s coverage of the TD Waterhouse Cup from Long Island, however, expires at the close of the 2004 event.

Kantarian said the USTA is also negotiating with Tennis Channel, which carried some of the action from these tourneys last year, to become involved on a “more centralized” basis, perhaps supplying early-round action at each of the series events, and a studio show setting up the series.

“We are extremely supportive of the U.S. Open Series and we expect to announce a major role in the series shortly,” said Tennis Channel president and founder Steve Bellamy.

Bellamy said Tennis Channel holds the rights to “many” of the events in the series, including early-round action, as well as doubles semifinals and finals and some singles semifinals.

USA LIKES THE BUZZ

USA Network, the Open’s longtime cable carrier, had a contractual option to be involved in the series, stemming from its current deal with the USTA. Gordon Beck, senior vice president of production and sports at USA, said the network saw the series unfolding in another fashion, but welcomed the promotion it will afford its Open coverage.

“We love the cross-channel activity on the other networks that will bring more awareness to our Grand Slam event,” he said.

At the same time, ESPN and ESPN2 both entered the picture and offered better scheduling continuity, said Kantarian.

Mark Shapiro, executive vice president, programming and production at ESPN, said the series marked an opportunity to increase the networks’ number of live events in the summer and underscores its renewed commitment to the sport. “A couple of years back, we had let tennis and the Slams get away from us. We made a commitment to make tennis a priority again,” he said. “With live action, VOD, PPV and Spanish-language rights, we plan to blow this out of the water.”

'BRIDGE’ FOR ESPN

Shapiro also said the series provides a bridge to an event that remains beyond ESPN’s reach. “We’ve never been able to bid on the U.S. Open because of our commitments to college and pro football. But this allows us to sit at the table and set up the big buffet.”

Given its commitment to the Open series, coverage of the Grand Slams, Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon, as well as other tourneys, ESPN will have over 600 hours of tennis programming in 2004.

To garner participation from the game’s elite players, the USTA is instituting a points and a cash bonus system that this year could have the winners of the series take home 50% beyond their Open prize money. That bonus will reach 100% for the top players in the succeeding year’s of the series, with funding coming from the USTA.

UMBRELLA LATER

The U.S. Open series is the brainchild of Kantarian, who has been championing the notion as means to bolster interest in the sport and ultimately the organization’s crowning moment, the Open, over the past three years.

Plans call to unify the existing tournaments under an umbrella logo and the series will be supported by a multimillion dollar promotional campaign, encompassing print, TV and online areas. That effort will begin in major way in June.

At the press conference, it was announced that Olympus has signed on as a series charter sponsor this year, and that Mass Mutual would support the events in 2005. Overall, Kantarian said the USTA is seeking a presenting sponsor for the series, as well as four or five official partners. These sponsorships would include some level of media expression on the participating networks.

Together, ESPN and the USTA are splitting the inventory on the events, with the sport’s national governing body putting aside many units to tout the series, as well as the game itself, Kantarian said after the press gathering.

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