The United States Tennis Association and ESPN announced Thursday (via Philly.com) that America’s biggest tennis event—the United States Open—will be exclusive to the cable giant starting in 2015.
The contract, which runs for 11 years, will pay the USTA $770 million over the duration and is the right decision by both parties.
The loser is CBS.
The over-the-air partner since 1968, CBS reportedly (via Sports Business Daily) rejected keeping their current Labor Day/Championship Weekend package at $30 million per year, an increase of 50 percent over their current $20 million annual deal that expires in 2014.
The current tennis environment made CBS’ decision an easy one.
With the Williams’ sisters aging and—with apologies to John Isner and Sam Querrey—no big American names to draw casual viewers on either the men’s or the women’s side, CBS decided the ratings were not worth the price tag.
All four of the Grand Slams are on ESPN. Only the French Open has an over-the-air partner, NBC.
ESPN also does an incredible job in hyping and covering these events.
For these two-week periods, ESPN2 is blown out to provide wall-to-wall tennis coverage. When the ESPN hype machine gets into full force, casual fans pay attention. For anyone younger than 40, there is no difference between a broadcast network like CBS and a cable behemoth like ESPN.
ESPN, by giving the USTA an increase from the current $60 million a year overall to the new $70 million-plus to be paid, will give the U.S. Open the same treatment they give to their current rock stars, NFL and college sports.
The USTA, in turn, has to find and develop the next great American superstar.
Labor Day weekend in New York is about showcasing the greats, from Jimmy Connors to Serena Williams. Tennis fans will watch regardless of who is on. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal will captivate fans as long as they play.
But, the USTA has to give those casual fans a reason why their clickers should stop on ESPN2. Tennis has fallen in popularity since the days of John McEnroe and Chris Evert and has not recovered from the retirement of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
The product on the court is better now than it was 10 years ago. Matches at all four Slams are as dramatic as they have ever been. However, they have yet to compete on American television against everything else.
The fact that the USTA received an increase in television fees is amazing. Now, they have to do their job and get kids and adults playing the sport again.