Inside the Lines

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“People who watch tennis are knowledgeable and passionate. They aren’t afraid to let us know what they think.”

These are phrases you hear a lot when you talk to people who do tennis programming at ESPN. By which they really mean: “Tennis fans are a tough crowd.”

It’s true. Give us coverage of a Grand Slam from first ball to last and we’ll ask why we didn’t get to see the fifth set of Smyczek vs. Bogomolov on Court 13. Show an interview with Serena Williams or a few minutes of Rafael Nadal practicing and we’ll scream about not getting to watch the third-set tiebreaker between Hewitt and Youzhny. Try to get a few words in with a player before he or she walks on court and we’ll tweet about how uncomfortable and intrusive the pre-match interviews in the tunnel are—in that case, of course, we’re right.

For the rest of 2013, we won’t have ESPN to kick around anymore. With the end of the U.S. Open, the sport leaves the country until next January. Which means that, except for a brief reappearance at the World Tour Finals in London in November, the network won’t broadcast any more tennis. With that in mind, last week I talked to Jason Bernstein, senior director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, about how tennis at the Worldwide Leader fared in Flushing Meadows, and this season. 

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I don’t think this will go down as an especially memorable Open. Were you happy with the way it went, ratings-wise?

Bernstein: We were, actually. Audiences were up across the board. We extended our reach to new people, and increased the minutes consumed. There were good stories that we told and covered, and the tournament had a good conclusion, with most of the top players still in it [CBS, rather than ESPN, showed the singles semifinals and finals].

(Note: To those of us who believe that ESPN spends too much time not showing live tennis matches, the network has responded in the past that to draw in new fans, it needs to tell the players’ stories, and not just show them on court. Basically, the idea is that hardcore fans are going to watch no matter what; the trick is to introduce the general sports audience to people like Stan Wawrinka and Victoria Azarenka through interviews and visits to the commentary booth.)

Does it surprise you that the women’s final out-drew the men’s final on CBS? (8 million more people in the U.S. watched Serena vs. Vika than Rafa vs. Novak)

Bernstein: It doesn’t surprise me, for a few reasons. First, you’re talking about the women on Sunday vs. the men on Monday. Sunday is a high consumption day for sports across the board, and there wasn’t a lot of football in the 4:00 time slot to compete with it. The men have been on Monday for something like five straight years and have never done well. 

You also had the Serena factor. She’s a proven ratings star, especially in the United States. And in this match you had her against Azarenka, who is a viable match-up for her, and who had almost beaten her there last year. You had an exciting second set and second-set tiebreaker. All of that was compelling, and something people tuned in to see.

Speaking of men vs. women, who typically gets higher ratings on ESPN?

Bernstein: There are a few things to consider there. A lot depends on the individual player, and then you have to compare three out of five sets versus two out of three and average that out. But overall tennis is unique in that the ratings for men and women are very similar for us, much more equal than other sports. That's been the case for many years.

Fans and writers like me talk a lot about the Golden Age of tennis that we’re in right now. Has that translated into higher ratings?

Bernstein: In general, yes, tennis has done well over the last decade. But it’s still such an individual sport that it depends on the player. Andre Agassi was as big a ratings star as any player today. The proven ratings winners for us now are the Williams sisters and Roger [Federer], and now Rafa has shown that he can bring people in. But we haven’t seen that with matches between Novak [Djokovic] and Andy [Murray] yet. Tennis can still be a challenge without a name-brand star.

For myself, I always wonder why ESPN shows so much tennis but doesn’t cover it or promote it more on SportsCenter.

Bernstein: I think that SportsCenter covers it really well during the majors. And those tournaments have been at the core of our tennis coverage for years. There's a mentality among people that only the Slams count. The challenge is to show that we’re in tennis from the beginning of the year to the end, on broadcast and online, and to align ourselves with the tours more, to show that we don’t just care about the majors. 

You mention that Federer is a rating star. Do you fear any ratings fall if we see less of him in the near future?

Bernstein: Tennis always tends to have a big star who is doing well. Roger has faded a little lately, but Rafa and Serena have performed extremely well. What hurts us more is when we show tournaments in the U.S. where the top European players don’t play, and where people withdrawal at the last minute. We'd like to see more players come to the U.S. summer series.

What will having the U.S. Open final, starting in 2015, do for ESPN’s coverage?

Bernstein: That will be huge for us. That’s a real chance to extend our reach and find new viewers for tennis on ESPN. It will be the culmination of tennis here, which goes all the way back to the network’s beginning in 1979. I think that's something the network will be very proud of having, and will get behind.

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