Friday Night Lights

by: Steve Tignor | August 01, 2013

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Today, on the first day of August, we enter that all-too-brief window of time when U.S. tennis fans get to see what it feels like to be everyone else. On Sundays, we'll get to know exactly when the finals of our tournaments will be played, and that they’ll be broadcast on basic cable. Every now and then, we'll even get to come home from work and watch a tennis match in prime time—who do we think we are, baseball? Of course, the latter phenomenon doesn’t happen all that often. ESPN2 won’t start broadcasting evening sessions from the Citi Open this week, or the Rogers Cup next week, until Friday. But we’ll take what we can get, even if we’re occasionally bumped off the air in favor of a Little League game.

Whatever you think of ESPN’s tennis coverage, you can’t say the network hasn’t put money into the sport. It has spent a decade gathering up the rights to the Grand Slams, an effort that was capped this year with the ultimate prize—starting in 2015, ESPN will take the U.S. Open away from CBS and broadcast it from start to finish. The $825 million price tag was steep enough that it reportedly contributed to the company’s decision, despite its immense profitability, to lay people off earlier this year.

The question going forward is whether it was enough to get the Worldwide Leader to cover and promote tennis as well. In July, Deadspin reported that the sport ranked last in mentions on ESPN’s flagship news show, SportsCenter, in 2012. Out of 17,361.25 minutes of airtime, tennis was allotted 166.25 of them. As Deadspin noted, that’s half as much time as New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez received by himself. And Sanchez didn’t even come close to the level of coverage that his Jet back-up, Tim Tebow, received. I’m guessing that there was more footage of LeBron James throwing chalk in the air and Tiger Woods sinking a putt at the U.S. Open five years ago than there was of tennis as a whole.

This isn’t news. A few years back, when I asked an executive at ESPN why there were so few tennis highlights on SportsCenter, the answer was, essentially, that they were two different worlds—two different audiences, two different sets of advertisers. And it’s true, there’s probably not a lot of overlap. The tennis crowd tends to be older and more upscale, while SportsCenter appears to be aimed at the hungover college student who will sit through the same episode five straight times on his couch in the morning. The U.S. Open’s main beverage sponsor is Moet & Chandon champagne; SportsCenter’s is Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Tennis’s signature commercial is Roger Federer dreaming about himself in a Rolex ad; SportsCenter’s is a longhair in a State Farm spot crying, “Can I get a hot tub?” 

In this formulation, running tennis highlights right after NFL highlights is a waste of air time. But as I’ve written many times here in the past, I would argue from the opposite direction. Sports fans can only watch what they’re given. They’re only going to believe something is important or exciting if ESPN makes them believe it, and highlights have always been a big part of how people understand what matters in sports. One of the reasons that tennis had a higher U.S. profile here in the 1970s was that the primary American media outlet in those days, Sports Illustrated, had its best writers—Frank DeFord, Curry Kirkpatrick—covering the game all the time. If ESPN can make the world care about every detail in the life of the borderline-competent Tebow, it can make us at least pay attention to the weekly ups and downs of Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, each of whom will be spending a lot of time on ESPN2’s screens in the coming weeks. It’s been said that the network is waiting for a major American male tennis star to emerge before getting behind the sport in a bigger way. If so, that could be a long wait.

One look at a prime-time telecast featuring Federer or Nadal or Serena, or a closely contested Sunday afternoon final from Stanford or Carlsbad, should be enough for people to realize that tennis can hold its own as entertainment. If you can, watch a chunk of tennis and then flip to a baseball game; the world will seem to slow down all around you. There’s no reason, outside of custom and history, why anyone would think tennis is less worthwhile as a viewing experience.

But custom and history are real. From its beginnings in the 19th century, tennis spread widely around the world, but it rarely penetrated deeply into any one country, rarely dug beneath the upper crust. It will always be an upscale niche sport; Rolex and champagne rather than Armor All and Red Stripe. But at the moment, even that niche remains hidden on ESPN’s news programs, as well as on its website, where tennis isn’t listed or mentioned on the home page.

For this month, though, we can pretend otherwise. Sitting back and watching from D.C. and Montreal and Toronto and Cincy in the evening, we can forget about niches, and just watch the matches.

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