SBJ/June 25 - July 1, 2007/This Weeks News

Tennis Channel in line for another Slam

NBC and ESPN are close to renewing their contracts to broadcast Wimbledon through 2011, collectively paying up to $88 million, sources said, with The Tennis Channel, in a surprising development, gaining the rights to televise early-round matches starting next year as well.

Sources say the three networks will have live
streaming rights at Wimbledon.

NBC, whose current four-year, $52 million deal ends at the conclusion of this year’s tournament, which begins today, has agreed to a pact that carries roughly the same terms, sources said. ESPN, whose current four-year deal pays Wimbledon between $7 million and $9 million annually, also has agreed to a similar package. Financial details on The Tennis Channel agreement were not available.

All three companies will also have live video streaming rights, sources said. That would appear to end Wimbledon’s ties to MediaZone, which for the second straight year is offering Internet pay-per-view from the fortnight. The Internet sports broadcaster’s deal expires at the end of the current tournament, which runs to July 8.

Chris Ott, MediaZone director of sports, said the company is seeking an extension of its pact with the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which owns the grass-court spectacle, but he did not address specifically whether that was possible given the incoming contracts.

“Our contract is for this year,” Ott said. “We’ll see what happens.”

NBC and The Tennis Channel declined to comment, and the All England Club did not return calls. ESPN would only confirm that the negotiations were ongoing.

“We are working on an extension with expanded rights,” said Len DeLuca, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming.

The most startling aspect about the renewal deals is the entry of The Tennis Channel, which will now carry matches from three of the four tennis Grand Slams. The exception, ironically, is the U.S. Open, which is owned by the U.S. Tennis Association, an investor in The Tennis Channel.

“USA is our cable broadcaster through at least the 2008 U.S. Open, and it’s premature to talk about other possibilities beyond that,” a USTA spokesman said.

The Tennis Channel has struggled to gain distribution, but now, in less than a year, the four-year-old channel has inked the three Slams. It will be in 18 million homes by the end of the summer, thanks to a deal with DirecTV that will add the channel to its Choice Xtra package (with 8 million subscribers) by August.

IMG Media is negotiating the deals on behalf of the All England Club. The last NBC deal was first negotiated by Mark McCormack, the IMG founder who went into a coma in the midst of those talks. The negotiations were then handled by Bill Sinrich, the head of IMG’s TWI unit. Both men have since died.

The IMG talks now are being led by Barry Frank, IMG Media vice chairman, and Doug Perlman, president of IMG Media North America.

NBC’s deal is one of the few recently for a lesser sport that will not see a rights fee reduction. That may be in part because of the role Wimbledon plays in hospitality for NBC parent General Electric in Europe. It also could be tied to the introduction of a roof over Centre Court by 2009, meaning the finals will no longer have to suffer through rain delays.

“Definitely … [having a roof] would be a huge plus. Rain delays [and] cancellations cost money in terms of reduced ratings,” said Neal Pilson, a media consultant and former CBS Sports head. “A rain-free court would be very valuable.”

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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