Tennis, ESPN Doubling Up

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Introducing the new Grand Slam doubles team: The Tennis Channel and ESPN have partnered on a multimedia programming and marketing alliance for Roland Garros (The French Open) and the Australian Open through 2011.

The pact enables ESPN to keep the second of three major tournaments and its sobriquet as “The Grand Slam Network,” while Tennis, which scored a deal with the French Tennis Federation for Roland Garros last August, adds a second Slam.

Continuing its recent momentum, Tennis — the United States Tennis Association took a stake in the service in December — now has TV rights to 48 of the top 50 tournaments.

Under terms of the pact, ESPN2 gained the right from Tennis to present 60 hours from Roland Garros this May and June, while the dedicated racquet service will carry more than 100 hours from the red-clay tourney. ESPN also acquired new-media rights, including streaming and broadband capabilities. The parties have not yet mapped out their digital plans for the French.

In exchange, Tennis will net some 100 hours of live and taped coverage from the Australian Open, beginning next January.

ESPN2 plans to maintain the 120 hours of coverage from Melbourne it has provided in recent years. The 2007 event was highlighted by the network's best-ever tennis rating, a 1.9 household mark for its Jan. 26 presentation of Serena Williams' straight-set rout of No. 1 Maria Sharapova in the women's final.

Sharing costs, Tennis will produce the coverage from Paris, while ESPN does the same from Down Under.

Tennis chairman Ken Solomon volleyed back a passing shot that ESPN's retention of French Open rights could prove detrimental to Tennis growing its distribution base.

“Like any great world-class sports event, the more you see the more you want. The coverage will be complementary, not duplicative. Additionally, the vast majority of potential viewers don't have TV at work and will now come home each night to Paris After Dark, The French Open in primetime, exclusively on The Tennis Channel,” he said. “They'll see the best action from both networks plus matches not previously seen in either telecast, all promoted throughout the day in ESPN2's 90 million subscriber homes.”

Could the parties share future Wimbledon coverage? “ESPN will be in discussions with [the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club] before too long,” ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper said, noting the company's rights expire after this year's fortnight. “I don't want to comment before we get in a room with them.”

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