SBJ/March 19 - 25, 2001/This Weeks Issue

Prime time for women’s Open final

CBS is expected to televise the U.S. Open women's tennis singles championship final in prime time on Sept. 8, sources said. An announcement about the historic decision could come as early as this week.

The 8 p.m. telecast would mark what is believed to be the first time that a broadcast network has scheduled a tournament match in prime time and would represent a major stride for women's sports. CBS and the U.S. Tennis Association, which owns the Open, declined to comment.

"The movement of the U.S. Open women's final to prime time in 2001 is another milestone in the progress the USTA is making in its commitment to equality among the men's and women's tours," Billie Jean King, founder of World TeamTennis and the WTA Tour, said in a statement that was prepared for a press release announcing the news.

King's historic battle of the sexes match with Bobby Riggs in 1973 is the only tennis match that was ever scheduled to be televised in prime time, defined as 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern Monday through Saturday, and 7 to 11 p.m. on Sunday. Other tennis matches have unexpectedly stretched into the prime-time hours.

Despite the popularity of women's tennis, there are risks for CBS. There is no guarantee that the finals will feature marquee players such as Venus and Serena Williams and Martina Hingis, as the championships have the last two years.

Nevertheless, the dynamic Williams sisters are beginning to have a "Tiger-like" effect on tennis ratings. When golfer Tiger Woods contends in a tournament, TV ratings surge.

The USTA approached CBS over a year ago about the scheduling change, and the talks became intense after last year's tournament ended, several sources said. The USTA proposed moving not only the women's final, but the Sept. 9 men's final, to prime time, one source said. While no agreement was reached on the men's final, the two sides are expected to sign a deal shortly to move the women's final.

CBS pays the USTA more than $30 million annually for rights to the Open but is not expected to spend more for the new prime-time slot. The network is planning only a one-year trial run in the new time and would presumably decide about future broadcasts after this year's event.

The looming broadcast writers strike did not affect the decision. While broadcasters have been worried about filling programming if there is a writers strike, sources close to the USTA deal said a decision to shift the final could have always been made at the time of the strike if that had been the motivation behind the move.

Historically, the women's final had been sandwiched between the two men's semifinals on what the Open dubbed "Super Saturday." After CBS lost the NFL in 1994, the network experimented with the finals on Sunday, the same day as the men's. But after regaining football in 1998, CBS moved the women's final back to Saturday, though the last two years it has followed the two semifinals.

The USTA was also deciding last week whether it would create a separate night session at the national Tennis Center for the women's final, which would mean selling new tickets for the event apart from the men's semifinals, sources said. The U.S. Open generated $150 million in revenue last year and a $95 million profit, so a new session would further pad those figures.

This year's U.S. Open is scheduled for Aug. 27 through Sept. 9.

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