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ESPN drops Indian Wells and Miami TV coverage. From Katie. Thanks.

Posted by tennisplanet on February 8, 2008

Katie |

Is it possible we won’t be forced to endure the less than stellar tennis coverage of ESPN? Hark, I hear hope on the horizon, in the name of FSN (Fox Sports Network). Dare we hope for erudite (and quieter) announcers? Could there perhaps be a chance to see the matches we actually want to see? Or will we be begging ESPN to take back their tennis rights because of egregious follies on the part of FSN? All that said thank god it wasn’t the Tennis Channel that got the rights (I STILL can’t get TTC!)

I think I hear TP’s cheers in the background, something like Ding Dong the Midget’s dead maybe?

Channel Change: FSN Gains Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai Rights By Richard Pagliaro
Tuesday, February 05, 2008Roger Federer
© Getty Images

World No. 1 Roger Federer made early exit from Indian Wells and Miami last year and while Federer will be back bidding to regain both Masters Series crowns next month another major player will be noticeably absent from both Indian Wells and Miami — as well as the Tennis Masters Cup-Shanghai.

ESPN, which has televised Indian Wells, Miami and Tennis Masters Cup for several years, did not renew its rights for those tournaments this year.

Instead, Fox Sports Net will televise all three events. FSN, which was approached by the ATP as a broadcast partner for all three tournaments, has a one-year agreement to televise Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai. Both the ATP and FSN will assess the partnership at the end of the year before deciding on a possible renewal. Tennis Week has contacted the ATP for confirmation and comment and will publish its position as soon as it’s received.

“We’re doing these two events and the Shanghai event,” FSN Vice President of Programming David Sussin told Tennis Week. “These are three very important tournaments in the tennis calendar and we’re really very excited to televise them. The ATP came to us and it fit in really well between our college basketball coverage so we’re looking forward to it and we’re both excited to try this and see how it works.”

FSN has not yet decided on its commentary team for the three tournaments. FSN is planning on televising 34 hours of Indian Wells coverage (30 hours live and 4 hours on tape delay though the live coverage can vary depending upon which regional FSN network you receive), including the men’s and women’s finals on Sunday, March 23. FSN is scheduled to televise the women’s final from 3-5 p.m. Eastern and the men’s final from 5-7 p.m. Eastern on March 23.

The network change represents a distinct departure for all three tournaments, which were mainstays on ESPN or ESPN2 for years.

A year ago, the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami boasted more than 97 hours of domestic coverage — the most in tournament history — on ESPN2, Tennis Channel and CBS, which televised the men’s and women’s finals live from Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park. While there was speculation Tennis Channel could make a late bid to share the rights as of now FSN will televise Indian Wells and Miami with CBS continuing to televise the Miami finals.

An ESPN spokesman told Tennis Week a few factors played a part in the network’s decision to drop the two most important tournaments — apart from the U.S. Open, of course — on the American calendar.

ESPN said it did negotiate with the ATP, but could not come to terms on an agreement to retain its rights.
The network’s coverage of March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournament that grips many sports fans across the country, is its most successful property in March with ratings and advertising dwarfing those Indian Wells and Miami produce
The fact that CBS televise the Miami final means ESPN had been televising much of the tournament without the traditional advertising and audience pay-off that comes with a highly-anticipated tournament final. For instance, when Andre Agassi, one of the top ratings winners for American networks in the Open Era, won three consecutive Miami crowns from 2001-2003, it was CBS rather than ESPN that reaped the ratings reward and advertiser dollars in those finals.
ESPN is focusing on the three Grand Slam tournaments it owns or shares cable rights for — the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon — as well as the U.S. Open Series.
While network officials won’t say so publicly, it is widely believed advertising for the three tournaments has been miniscule, compared to the ad rates generated by March Madness and the vast time difference between Shanghai and U.S. results in a smaller audience, making the decision to pull the plug relatively painless in the bottom line business of television.
For years, ESPN execs have discussed their desire to grow the tennis audience and attract the casual tennis fan, however their decision to drop Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai — combined with the fact they let their long-time Davis Cup rights deal lapse two years ago — could well signal a shift in the network’s tennis philosophy: rather than trying to expand the tennis audience, ESPN now seems intent on televising tournaments which already come complete with a built-in audience: namely the Grand Slam tournaments as well as the U.S. Open Series. The concept seems to be capitalizing on the current audience rather than trying to create a new one.
“We’re not doing either event and there were a number of factors [behind the decision],” an ESPN spokesman told Tennis Week. “We did negotiate with the ATP and we couldn’t come to a mutual agreement and they decided to take their business elsewhere. If you look at our schedule in terms of number of hours we spend on tennis, we are focusing more and more on the Grand Slams and U.S. Open Series, those are the biggest event. Those cut through the clutter with the every day sports fan and are recognized.”

What does the shift from ESPN to FSN mean to you, the viewer?

Depending on where you live it could mean more coverage hours, particularly for Indian Wells and Miami, though that is not guaranteed. Since FSN is comprised of regional networks each region has the option of televising more coverage if they choose, though they are not bound to do so, Sussin told Tennis Week.

“We’re not a single-feed network,” Sussin said. “We’re an assemblage of a bunch of regions and a sort of advantage of that is with Indian Wells, for instance, Fox Sports West could decide to expand its local coverage of Indian Wells beyond the times we are distributing nationally.”

The larger question is: what does ESPN’s decision to divest itself of three of the most prominent Masters Series tournaments mean to the network and to the ATP? The ATP may well be aiming to further expand the content on its own ATP Masters Series TV where it can bypass networks and sell directly to fans and sponsors.

While ESPN reduces its Masters Series coverage, all signs point to the Grand Slam Network expanding its Grand Slam by eventually landing — likely in partnership with Tennis Channel — the most important tournament in American television: the U.S. Open. It’s long been throught the ESPN/Tennis Channel partnership in televising the three other majors as well as their continued contract to televise the Olympus U.S. Open Series are the necessary steps toward succeeding USA Network as the cable rights holder for the Flushing Meadows major.

Last February, Tennis Channel and ESPN announced they had entered into a multi-year, multimedia programming and marketing alliance for Grand Slam coverage of Roland Garros and the Australian Open.

In a conference call with John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president of content, and Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon the day that deal was announced, Tennis Week asked about the prospect of the networks reprising their Australian Open-French Open partnership to make a run at acquiring U.S. Open cable rights when USA Network’s existing contract with the USTA expires in 2008.

Interestingly, neither Skipper nor Solomon flatly denied interest in eventually bidding on rights to the season’s final major though neither man confirmed interest either.

“We don’t have any current rights with the U.S. Open,” Skipper told Tennis Week then. “It is a spectacular event. It is an event we love, but those guys [the USTA] have existing agreements. I would prefer not to comment.”

Asked for his thoughts on a possible pursuit of the Open, Solomon replied: “We will echo [Skipper’s statement]. Forward prognostication never works well. We have committed our resources to two tremendous assets here to elevate the game.”

However, in an extensive interview with Tennis Week prior to the February, 2007 announcement, Solomon, a New York native well aware of the importance of the Flushing Meadows major and the impact it could have on a network eager to expand its audience reach of current 10 million households, said; “We’re already a [U.S. Open] partner to some degree. I guess at the moment my only answer is: you never know.”

Solomon doesn’t have to go very far for insight into the USTA’s thinking, he can merely look across the board room table into the eyes of Arlen Kantarian, Chief Executive of Professional Tennis for the USTA. Kantarian, a former Radio City Music Hall exec whose promotional prowess and entertainment expertise have done more to attract attention for USTA-owned tournaments than the Rockettes have done for high kicks, joined TC’s board of directors in the role of “observer” after the USTA became an official TTC investor last year.

Kantarian is an innovator who was the driving force behind the U.S. Open moving the women’s final to its Saturday night prime-time slot, and a chief architect of the U.S. Open Series that has resulted in a ratings rise for American networks. Under Kantarian’s guidance, U.S. Open attendance, viewership and sponsorship has risen and you don’t need a PhD in programming to figure out he’s considering all options to continue that growth.

The level of interactivity between the USTA, ESPN and TTC, which are the primary promoters of the U.S. Open Series through their telecasts, has now reached a level where it appears almost a foregone conclusion that a U.S. Open deal will eventually be done.

A combined ESPN/TTC deal for U.S. Open could exponentially expand the tennis audience and ad revenue for both networks.

In return, the USTA would receive unprecedented levels of exposure for its crown jewel, the U.S. Open, by gaining its most comprehensive coverage of the tournament (CBS owns network rights to the Open) through both two cable networks and potential web streaming over both ESPN and TC’s web sites. Tennis Channel streamed Roland Garros for free over its website last spring.

For all these reasons, an ESPN/TC alliance seems certain to continue with eventual acquisition of the U.S. Open.

Think about it for a moment: the concept that both TC and ESPN are now, either jointly or independently, televising three of the four majors and a majority of the U.S. Open Series, but not the U.S. Open itself, makes about as much sense as a restaurant luring you inside with appealing array of appetizers, substantial side dishes and an open stocked bar, but is ultimately forced to send you down the street to a different establishment when it comes time to devour the main course.

When it comes to televised tennis in the United States, the U.S. Open is the tennis version of Thanksgiving — the ultimate annual tennis feast for fans. The fact that television’s two primary promoters of the U.S. Open Series do not reap the payoff of televising the U.S. Open itself cannot be satisfactory to either network given their investments in the sport.

Additionally, both TC and ESPN’s audiences are obviously already more predisposed to sports participation than the USA Network audience so in that respect the USTA would be upgrading in reaching its primary target audience: people who watch and play tennis.

It’s not just a win-win situation, it’s a straight-sets win for all parties: the USTA gains greater exposure for its primary properties and potentially grows its member base in the process; ESPN completes its cable Grand Slam and finally fulfills its title as “The Grand Slam Network” as reality rather than self-serving hype while expanding its audience and presumably generating greater ad revenue with improved ratings; The Tennis Channel solidifies its status as a primary player in tennis by drawing more viewers with rights to three of the four majors and moves closer toward breaking even and tennis viewers could look forward to more comprehensive coverage across multiple platforms and two networks.

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7 Responses to “ESPN drops Indian Wells and Miami TV coverage. From Katie. Thanks.”

  1. Bonny said

    Good news (I hope); one thing I dislike about ESPN2 (in addition to all the other obvious reasons) is the scroll of scores/news along the bottom. Interferes with the enjoyment of rewatching Federer matches on DVD-R(for the 100th time). I’m too stupid to remember that they are VERY old scores and find myself paying attention.

  2. Eva said

    Katie, thank you for this information, although at this moment I don’t know what it will mean to me in Canada. Here The Sports Network, or TSN, provides most of the available coverage, woith channel 401 as the alternate for ESPN 2. However, sometimes they make arbitrary changes, such as cancelling what is already on the prgram chart, or deciding to broadcast without having given any indication! Sometimes I have accidentally stumbled on to coverage! It should not be that way.
    But I will check, and I hope that things will improve regarding coverage. And yes, if Pat Mc wouldn’t be there, I wouldn’t shed a tear, but maybe cheer. For me, Bud Collins is not a very pleasing personality, either, although he is mainly courtside. He seems to be the type that Don Cherry, the hockey Maven in Canada is.
    What other major player will be absent?

  3. Gracie said

    Yeah, we’ll have to see. The FOX network is pretty low on the food chain, IMO. If their sports coverage is anything like their news, gawd help us!

  4. Katie said

    I hear you, Gracie!!

  5. djean said

    the problem with this is now there is no local coverage of these events available without paying for a premium channel….some is better than none…

  6. Llewellyn said

    FSN coverage of IW has been,at least in the East,just criminally deficient. Just awful! Any commitment to tennis here is at best marginal.

    At one set a piece, Nadal/Tsonga, 6-7.7-6, they broke off for NHL pregame. They have ignored the WTA component and offer nothing but a cameo match or two each day. FSN has too many other sport interests to give tennis anything but snaps shot coverage. To fans it is offensive.

    If this is where tennis is headed, fans are in dire straits, worse than pessimists feared. IW the world’s 6th biggest tournament is is made to look almost trivial.

  7. Dave B said

    I agree that FSN coverage in the New York area was criminally bad ( it was shown on the MSG+ name). I have been thrilled with all the Tennis Channel coverage of the clay court season. Wall to wall coverage. Not all the commentary is good and some of the filler pieces stink but it’s tennis heaven. Unfortunately I cannot get Tennis Channel at my vacation home on Long Island.

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