They Said What? Cable Ready

Thursday, May 16, 2013 /by
Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA
Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA

“When it opened up and we thought about it, ESPN is the strongest brand in sports. It puts the U.S. Open at the center of American sports culture like never before. It really gives us access to the multiple platforms that ESPN has. It's the way our fans are going to demand to see the Open in the future. We think it opens up all kinds of great possibilities.”—Gordon Smith, USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer

One of the most rapidly evolving stories in today’s hyper-energized media world is growing parity between cable television—once the domain of the unwatched and unwatchable in a severely limited number of households—and the iconic blue-chip networks, like CBS, NBC and ABC, that in simpler times dominated the airwaves.

Today, with the announcement that ESPN is replacing CBS as the exclusive broadcast partner of the USTA/U.S. Open come 2015, that evolution has maxed out, at least when it comes to tennis. For nearly half a century, and since the dawn of Open tennis, traditional broadcast giant CBS was the tournament’s main partner. The network shepherded the game through the Open era, and deserves much credit for opening tennis up to an enormous audience—mostly through its substantial and generally excellent coverage of the U.S. Open.

CBS’ contract expires after next year’s tournament at Flushing Meadows, and it seems that the network was unwilling to meet the USTA’s asking price for renewal. ESPN, which over recent years had quietly acquired the U.S. rights to the other three Grand Slam events, jumped into the fray and snatched the biggest plum off the American tennis tree. The Sports Business Journal is reporting that the 11-year deal is worth as much as $770 million—or an average of about $70 million per year, which is almost double the amount ESPN and CBS currently pay ($40 million, combined).

The move, unthinkable as little as a decade ago, takes yet another chunk out of empire once built by the traditional broadcast networks, and is proof of just how large the cable and satellite-dish audience has grown.

Now for the interesting bits, as far as fans rather than financial wizards are concerned:

Starting in 2014, Super Saturday will be nothing but a distant memory. The USTA will revert to the familiar, alternate-day Grand Slam formula. The women’s semis will be played on Thursday and the final on Saturday. The men’s semis will be broadcast partly in prime time on Friday, and in the familiar 4:00 PM time slot on Sunday.

All that is made possible partly by the fact that, unlike CBS, ESPN has multiple broadcast and digital platforms—the cable-based network can bring you both NCAA football and the U.S. Open women’s final on the last weekend—as well as streaming content throughout the two weeks of the tournament on the cable giant’s sophisticated digital platforms.

This is a great win for tennis. Among other things, ESPN has bundled its U.S. Open commitment with an agreement to also broadcast the U.S. Open Series that leads to the grand finale in New York. All told, ESPN will broadcast about 200 hours over a span of about six weeks (roughly 140 of those hours will be at the U.S. Open).

And perhaps best of all for tennis diehards: ESPN wants to stream every single competitive main-draw singles match of the tournament, from the minute the first ball of the 2015 U.S. Open is hit.

This is a watershed event for tennis—and probably for sports broadcasting in general.

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