Exclusive: ESPN acquires substantial WTA online coverage rights
WTA tournaments will bounce into broader online coverage starting with next week’s WTA Championships in Istanbul.
ESPN Inc. has signed a four-year agreement with the WTA to carry live coverage of its events across multiple platforms, the network told TENNIS.com. The deal includes exclusive rights to WTA Premier event weekday matches, as well as rights to the WTA Championships singles final on ESPN2 and ESPN3, with live round-robin and semifinals coverage also on ESPN3.
Coverage begins Tuesday with the WTA Championships from Istanbul. ESPN3’s live coverage will feature select round-robin matches, both semifinals and the final (the latter to be shown live on Sunday, October 30, at 11 a.m. EST). ESPN2 will provide tape-delay television coverage of the final at 1 p.m EST. (This year's Istanbul matches will also be shown on Tennis Channel.)
Starting with the Sydney tournament in January, ESPN3 will present live coverage of more than 70 matches from 11 events, including early rounds and select quarterfinals, annually between January-October, ESPN told TENNIS.com. The network will use the same commentators who work ESPN2’s television coverage and rely on the world feed when it is not providing television coverage of an event.
ESPN3 is ESPN's live, multi-screen sports network accessible online via WatchESPN.com. It is currently available to about 70 million homes to fans who receive their high-speed Internet connection or video subscription from an affiliated service provider. The network is also available at no cost to approximately 21 million U.S. college students and U.S.-based military personnel via computers connected to on-campus educational networks and on-base military networks.
“This new agreement with the WTA says a lot about the power of ESPN’s multi-platform scale and its ability to serve passionate tennis fans,” said Jason Bernstein, senior director of programming and acquisitions, ESPN. “We have a long history with professional tennis in our 32 years, and now we are slated to carry all the top-tier tennis events from around the world across our networks.”
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. ESPN and the WTA will officially announce the partnership tomorrow.
“ESPN has long served tennis fans in the U.S., and we are pleased to continue to partner with them to deliver enhanced coverage of world class women’s tennis across ESPN’s multiple platforms,” said Stacey Allaster, CEO of the WTA.
The new pact means ESPN3 adds 150 live hours of women’s tennis annually to its programming slate. The network now carries all four Grand Slam tournaments, all ATP World Tour 500 and ATP Masters 1000 events—including Indian Wells, Miami and the Rogers Cup in Canada—the WTA Premier events, and the season-ending championships of both tours—the TEB-BNP Paribas WTA Championships and Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
In a year that began with Justine Henin’s second retirement and saw a trio of former top-ranked Grand Slam champions sidelined for substantial stretches of the season—Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters—ESPN execs say this pact was partly driven by its belief that younger Top 10 players, including world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova and third-ranked Victoria Azarenka, will challenge for major championships and create compelling rivalries to attract both audience and advertisers.
“What drives tennis are the competitors, the play on the court and the budding and existing rivalries in the sport,” Bernstein told TENNIS.com. “And that drove us to this agreement. You have Wozniacki, Kvitova, Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, (Agnieszka) Radwanska and Li Na, who are compelling players. Some have won Grand Slam titles, some haven't, and some we believe will win majors in the future. And that was really the driving force in doing this deal and providing coverage across all our platforms. It also puts a solid bookend to our coverage, which begins in Australia in January, and now ends with coverage of both women’s and men’s season-ending championships.”
ESPN says the deal has no impact on its existing partnership with Tennis Channel, which typically picks up much of its WTA tournament coverage in the quarterfinal rounds and also provides semifinals and final coverage.
“It doesn't really have a bearing on our relationship with Tennis Channel, which is a good one,” Bernstein told TENNIS.com. “Tennis Channel continues to be an important partner. We've long said a successful Tennis Channel is a success for tennis because it gives the game more coverage.”
The global game also gains more mobile coverage for fans frequently on the move. WatchESPN, a free app, delivers live access to ESPN3 on smartphones and tablets to fans who receive their video subscription from Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks or Verizon FiOS TV.
“Prime time coverage for a tennis fan can mean in the middle of the work day depending on where the tournament is being played,” said Damon Phillips, vice president, ESPN3. “Whether you live on the east coast or west coast, if you have a mobile device or online access you will be able to come to ESPN3 as a leading year-round destination for live tennis, including outer court and exclusive coverage. With matches sometimes played simultaneously on several courts, this is the ideal platform for live tennis.”
ESPN, which became the first American network to televise all four Grand Slams in the same season this year, retains cable television rights to the Australian Open (through 2021), Roland Garros (through 2015), Wimbledon (2023) and the U.S. Open (2014).
Richard Pagliaro is the gear editor for TENNIS.com.