SBJ/September 14 - 20, 1998/No Topic Name

McGwire's antics slam U.S. Open

Despite the buzz surrounding the surging women's tennis tour and the re-emergence of Andre Agassi, the U.S. Open failed to register significant broadcast ratings gains through the quarterfinals last week.

In fact, ratings were down on CBS Sports and only slightly up on the USA Network. Even attendance at the event was off last year's record pace.

"McGwire's been killing us," said David Schwartz, a USA spokesman.

Indicative of the distraction provided by the baseball slugger's home run chase, one television expert said he watched Mark McGwire's record-breaking shot on, of all places, a monitor in the U.S. Tennis Association suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.

When the homer news flashed on the stadium's big screen, baseball got as many cheers as the tennis.

With the McGwire countdown finally over Tuesday night after a national telecast of the St. Louis Cardinals-Chicago Cubs game on Fox, USA was hoping its tennis ratings would rise.

Through the middle of last week, however, the numbers were not impressive. For the Open's first week — Aug. 31 to Sept. 5 — USA had an overall rating of 0.9, up slightly from 0.8 last year. For the first 61 hours, the rating was 1.0, compared with a 0.9 for the first 54 hours of broadcasts during the same days last year.

CBS reported an average rating of 2.0 on its first day of coverage Sept. 5, down from 2.1 the previous year. On Labor Day, CBS got an average rating of 3.1, down from last year's 3.3 average. This year's Labor Day matches were stopped for two hours by rain delays, though last year's telecast also suffered rain delays.

"Ratings are often impacted by events outside your control, like a national telecast of a baseball game on a Tuesday night," said Neil Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports and the president of Pilson Communications Inc.

Most sports ratings are down relative to past years because so many channels now carry sports and dilute the viewership, Pilson said.

Notably, USA's daytime ratings are up 40 percent compared with last year, while the prime-time figure is down 11 percent.

Whichever way they are sliced, though, the ratings so far are sure to be disappointing because this year's Open was billed as a coming-out party for the women. Coming into the event, women players were viewed as more marketable and more interesting than their male counterparts, and USA promised more focus on women's matches.

While the buzz at the Open certainly surrounded the women, it did not translate into broadcast figures or attendance. Through the first 10 days, ending last Wednesday, attendance stood at 435,449, down from 452,859 during the same period a year ago.

Last Wednesday's results were not helped after Andre Agassi lost in the fourth round, denying him a quarterfinal match with Pete Sampras.

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