To the Victor Belongs The Spoils

Tennis Channel vs. ESPN: To the Victor Belongs The Spoils

While the world eagerly awaits the Mayweather-McGregor bout, tennis fans are more keen on the US Open Series culminating with the US Open on August 28th. The prospect of  Venus Williams and Roger Federer reaching another slam final or the championship is catnip for tennis fans. The prestige these slams garner is but a fraction of what our American sport networks seek. Tennis Channel (TC) and ESPN are in an unpromoted bout for the title of ‘Tennis Purveyor’. Their weight classes and experience may be different, but the once lighter and shorter opponent, TC, has classed-up and is ready for a fifteen round match.

TC only owns the rights to televise one of the sports’ four slams, French Open. It sublicenses the other three matches from ESPN, only able to show the other slams after ESPN has completed its broadcast day. This is a difficult position to be in if your sole product is tennis. In a brilliant business move, after acquiring TC last year, Sinclair Broadcast Group acquired Tennis Media Company, the owner of Tennis Magazine and Tennis.com; this created a unified media platform (television, print and online).

Sinclair Broadcast Group is playing the long game, preparing for their next move. As ESPN’s tennis television rights end in 2021 for Australian Open, 2023 for Wimbledon and 2025 for US Open, TC is securing the fanbase and positioning themselves for a monopoly. Theoretically this is feasible, but TC is not fondly thought of by rabid tennis fans. Only the WTA televisor, beIN is more despised: for not airing tournaments in their entirety, not having matches available online and not re-airing matches.

TC’s challenges are many. Above all, its propensity for sexism and poor commentating are most troubling. The extended basic  cable channel regularly used WTA matches for filler in its programming.  Like Wimbledon, the women were rarely given center court! And with the inception of Tennis Channel Plus in May 2014, women’s matches were pushed to the subscription service, likely costing them the WTA television rights. Frustrated by its treatment, WTA formed an exclusive five-year, multi-territory deal with television broadcaster beIN MEDIA GROUP, which while problematic does provide year round tennis for women. With what could have been a knock-out combo, the lost of WTA matches and  tennis fans’ hatred, TC could have been down for the count. The influx of resources and support from the acquisition has positioned the network for success.

On the eve of the Miami Open, TC announced it’s on air and digital commentating team. Still obsessed with on-court success, over broadcast skills (reporting, analysis, hosting) or potential, TC has solidified a mediocre team. The team does have some stellar on air talents (Lindsay Davenport, Brett Haber, Chanda Rubin and Sport Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim). However, the vapid and annoying Justin Gimelstob, intellectually verbose Paul Annacone and the deer in headlights James Blake do not elevate the team. Put to the test in May, the team performed like a fighter with something to prove!

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Tennis Channel’s 2017 French Open coverage was an impeccably clean combination of segments, commentating, reporting and production. With old (Unstrung, The Daily Serve) and new segments (Fantasy Draft, Advantage Omar and Mary In), TC balanced the needs of existing and new audience interests using a familiar travel/human interest angle once trampled by Destination Tennis. However, Tough Call and My Tennis Life best serve the tennis audience and uses both commentators and players in appealing ways.

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Unlike TC, ESPN is hobbled and it was most painfully visible during its Wimbledon coverage. After a difficult period of layoffs and restructuring it is no match for its once outclassed and outsized opponent. ESPNs’ commentating team has tennis legends (Chris Evert, John McEnroe) celebrities/super coaches (Patrick Mouratoglou) and on-air stars (John Goodall), yet its two-week production of the sport’s most treasured slam was lackluster. From its beatifully designed set, improved yet still halting commentating to the selection of matches to air,  ESPN is no competition to the much improved TC. Compared to TC’s Primetime re-showing via its sublicense, ESPN will need to reconsider its approach to tennis broadcasting, including its free online programming, WatchESPN, before the next slam.

This fight will likely be determined by ratings, the ultimate judge. Thus far, TC is winning the ratings battle, setting new highs both in average and single-day tune in for the French Open according to the Tennis Industry Association. With the addition of 7.8 million Nielsen homes TC is primed to eclipse the erratic if not declining exclusive license and sublicense ratings of ESPN.


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