ESPN takes over Wimbledon coverage from NBC
NEW YORK (AP)—No longer will American tennis fans have to search for Wimbledon matches on TV.
All England Club officials achieved their goal of having the entire tournament televised live and by the same company in the U.S. under their new 12-year contract with ESPN. Tuesday’s deal ends a 43-year run on NBC.
It had become an annual tradition with Wimbledon—complaints about NBC not showing every match live in all time zones. The network would have started airing the entire tournament live beginning in 2014 under its bid.
“There is no question the sports viewer nowadays wants to see things live,” All England Club chief executive Ian Ritchie said on a conference call. “Therefore, as far as we’re concerned, undoubtedly one of the advantages with this arrangement was to increase the amount of live coverage of Wimbledon.”
ESPN had owned the rights to extensively televise early rounds of Wimbledon since 2003, with NBC picking up coverage as the tournament progressed, culminating with the “Breakfast at Wimbledon” broadcasts of the finals.
NBC had acknowledged Sunday it was losing one of its marquee events, saying in a statement, “while we would have liked to have continued our relationship, we were simply outbid.”
Ritchie said organizers didn’t want to split the tournament between two companies anymore. NBC’s bid would have used Versus, its new cable partner after the Comcast acquisition, to air additional matches once ESPN’s old deal expired in two years.
“I think if you have two separate organizations telling the story, inevitably there is a danger of it being confused,” Ritchie said. “You want some consistency to it. You want to bring a combined and coherent promotional package to it as well.”
Quarterfinal matches will air on ESPN and ESPN2 at the same time so they can all be broadcast live. ESPN3.com will continue to show online additional matches that aren’t on TV.
“We’re getting dangerously close to 1,000 hours of live tennis during the two weeks,” ESPN executive vice president John Skipper said.
Wimbledon is just the latest major sporting event to move from the traditional four over-the-air networks to cable. College football’s Bowl Championship Series games are on ESPN, and NCAA basketball’s Final Four will be on TBS in alternating years starting in 2016.
“Over the last few years, we have looked to crown champions on ESPN, and this was a unique opportunity when the Club came to us to talk about a single narrative and a single partner,” Skipper said.
ESPN runs ABC Sports but does not plan to broadcast live Wimbledon matches on ABC.
Skipper said he wasn’t concerned about ratings in the U.S. with the lack of American men atop the rankings right now. The star power of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer is an attraction, he said, no matter their nationalities.
Ratings for the Wimbledon finals have fluctuated considerably depending on who’s playing and how competitive the matches are. Sunday’s Djokovic-Nadal men’s final on NBC drew a 2.1 overnight rating, up from the 1.9 for Nadal’s win over Tomas Berdych in 2010 but well below other matchups in recent years. Overnight ratings measure the percentage of all homes with TVs tuned into a program in the nation’s largest markets.
As more people take in sports on devices other than their television sets, Skipper said, the key number will be overall eyeballs, not the TV rating.
“We’re pretty confident that more people will watch the final next year,” he said. “Whether more people will watch the final next year on television, I’m less confident of.”