The strategy behind USA Network's six-year renewal of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships last week extends well beyond the Grand Slam event's hard courts.
The new deal, worth a reported $125 million, gives USA an anchor for both its summer and fall schedules for most of the decade.
"The U.S. Open fits in well with what we want to be as a network, offering high-profile events that attract a very particular type of viewer," USA president Doug Herzog said last week. He declined to discuss deal terms, or whether the network would make money from the new pact with the United States Tennis Association, but did say that tennis draws an affluent audience that matches up well against USA's primary target of adults 25 to 54.
With all of the attention received by tennis's current stars and emerging female players, Herzog noted, "We hope to bring in some younger viewers as well."
USA averaged a 1.5 household rating with the Open last year, up 36 percent from 2000.
Although the Open has been a USA staple for the past 18 years, Herzog said the network has only recently started to position the tourney more aggressively.
"We've been able to merchandise it successfully as one of four main programming tent poles this summer, along with [The] Dead Zone, Monk
and the AFI
[American Film Institute Life Achievement Award] special for Tom Hanks [on June 24]," the USA chief said. "The Open will serve as a crescendo to our summer. It's a big opportunity to let people know what we have coming up in the fall."
That fall fare includes a series of original movies in the "Crime Fridays" franchise.
The agreement, which takes effect next year, locks USA into presenting 90-plus hours of primetime and daytime action annually through 2008. Upcoming coverage from the National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., spans Aug. 26 through Sept. 8.
And there may be more tennis in the net's future.
If the USTA succeeds in a plan to link a number of July and August tourneys to what would become "the American tennis season," USA would be willing to provide weekend coverage of the semifinals and finals, USA Sports senior vice president Gordon Beck said.
That USTA gambit could galvanize the sport, but several parties must sign off on the plan. They include event telecasters Fox Sports Net, ESPN, the fledgling Tennis Channel, ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as tour and tournament organizers.
"We've had many conversations with all of the appropriate parties and we feel like we've made some progress," USTA chief business officer Pierce O'Neil said.
O'Neil said there is a "possibility" that something could happen in 2003, but he's "confident a couple of events will come together in 2004."
Several sources in the sports community think that grand scheme will fall into the net.
"There are just too many organizations, networks and tournament owners with too much money at stake for this to happen in a meaningful way," one source said. "You might see a tournament or two, but it won't be a string of events."
Tennis Channel president and founder Steve Bellamy said he hopes the tournaments are linked: "We've had discussions with the USTA about this for some time and told them we're committed to making it work. It would certainly change our summer programming plans."
He said Tennis holds the rights to some of the summer events.
So does ESPN. Mark Shapiro, senior vice president and general manager of programming for ESPN, said the network is in "discussions for a long-term renewal" of the Masters Tennis Series. Two of the tourneys from that series — in Toronto and Cincinnati — are major summer events building up to the Open.