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There’s been a small news desk adjacent to the main tennis stadium of the U.S. Open the past five tournaments. But only during last year’s fortnight did the tournament owner, the U.S. Tennis Association, receive numerous compliments from fans about the media outpost.
Indeed, before ESPN2’s inaugural campaign with the Open in 2009, the makeshift studio stood lonely, unused at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. So much so that most fans who passed by did not realize it even existed.
But ESPN2 last year transformed the space into an on-site and on-air visual spectacle, with fans waving and cheering in the background, akin to the sports broadcaster’s well-known “College Game Day” news desk that travels to boisterous college campuses each week during the football season.
The use of the tennis studio is one small way ESPN2 is recharging Open broadcasts, which was a major goal of the USTA when it dropped its three-decade-long cable partner, USA Network.
Ratings rose last year, especially in the key younger male demographic that advertisers covet, but perhaps more importantly ESPN is bringing the full weight of its empire to the event.
This year new innovations will include two skycams (the first ones ever at a tennis tournament, ESPN said), an hourlong draw show on ESPN2, and technology that tracks how far players run during matches. The event will be available across the full range of ESPN mediums. In addition to Open-specific coverage, the on-site studio will broadcast a two-hour “SportsCenter” on Sept. 12.
“We meet with them at the other Slams and other professional events,” said U.S. Open tournament director Jim Curley of the nearly year-round relationship the tourney has with ESPN2, which telecasts the other three tennis Grand Slams. “USA wasn’t at these events.”
The USTA also works with ESPN2 as part of its coverage of the U.S. Open Series, a branded circuit of summer hard-court events the group helped start and partially owns.
The USTA wanted to tap into ESPN’s reach with the casual sports fan and men, a major mission for a sport like tennis that often fails to break outside its core audience. Tennis is one of the few sports that attracts as many female viewers as male ones, but that can actually hurt with traditional sports advertisers.
By that measure, the move to ESPN2 has paid off. While the average number of households watching on ESPN2 jumped 20 percent in 2009, the increases for the key male demos were more dramatic — the audience of men 18-34 was up 44 percent, and men 18-49 rose 57 percent.
ESPN also is committed to showing matches until the end, something that did not always occur with USA, which commonly bumped the Labor Day night session in favor of wrestling.
“The most important change we wanted to make was to provide fans more coverage and more outlets to that coverage,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “We have a strong Internet presence, strong mobile, news and information magazine; we are surrounding tennis fans with a lot of content.”
Skipper will not predict another ratings rise, saying that is dependent on the stories that emerge from the Open. But he is bullish on the sport despite the decline of Americans at the top of tennis. He described Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as transcendent stars, and pointed to the continued strength of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. However, this year’s tournament will be without Serena, who is nursing a foot injury.
Still, tennis can be a tough sell. While ESPN2’s numbers were up from USA’s, the overall rating was only 0.7. And last year’s results were helped in part by the stunning run to the quarterfinals of a then obscure Melanie Oudin.
None of that troubles Skipper. His network’s deep investment in the Open includes the hourlong draw show, which might seem like a no-brainer in an era of NCAA tourney draw shows and league drafts, but was a long time coming for the Open.
The USTA for several years staged an agonizingly long draw ceremony, which was thankfully not televised, at the U.N. featuring its tournament referee picking player names out of a container one by one. There are 128 players entered in the men’s draw, and another 128 in the women’s.
The USTA’s Curley cites the televised draw show as one of ESPN’s two main initiatives from last year (the show was 30 minutes in 2009), as well as the news desk. Now the Open will get fly cams like the ones ESPN utilizes for “Monday Night Football.” The camera over Arthur Ashe stadium will be exclusive to ESPN2. The one over the food court can be bought into by the other two broadcasters, CBS and Tennis Channel.
ESPN and Tennis Channel signed a combined six-year deal worth $140 million for the rights to the U.S. Open and the Olympus U.S. Open Series beginning in 2009. They share coverage of the Open during the week, when play starts at 11 a.m. and can stretch well past midnight. But while Tennis Channel has enjoyed success, its reach is still limited to 25 million homes, a quarter of those that get ESPN2.
ESPN2, which is scheduled to broadcast 92 hours of Open coverage over the next two weeks, also may have had an influence on CBS, which before this year had resisted streaming its weekend matches, especially the finals. But ESPN2 streamed everything live last year, the first time much of the Open was available in this manner. And this year CBS will join suit.
Some innovations will have to wait, however. ESPN2 gave great consideration to the use of railcams along the back walls of the Open. The sight of cameras racing along the back walls like mechanical rabbits would surely have been a sight to see in tennis, which has shakily embraced change. Players frequently complain about spectators moving during points. Imagine the competitors’ response to railcams.
But ESPN did not reject the idea because of any perceived backlash. Instead it was simply the height of the walls and the difficulty of engineering around the existing cameras that shoot from the middle of those walls.
With ESPN committed to the Open, the network may yet find a way to bring in railcams. “We hope to be in the Slam business for a long time,” Skipper concluded.
Attend the U.S. Open Tennis Championships commencing this week, and chances are you will see a grinning, 6-foot-5 blur assuredly rush by on the grounds. That would be Justin Gimelstob.
The former player, 33, may be running to announce in Tennis Channel’s studio, to his Fox Sports radio hosting duties, or for similar chores at the ATP’s online magazine. Or he could even be off to a meeting of the ATP World Tour, where he’s a board member. Perhaps it’s for his regular spot on “The Early Show” on CBS or the TV Guide Channel. As he scurries by, he’s likely tweeting, too.
Such career multitasking is uncommon if not unheard of in most other sports’ media. Imagine Cris Collinsworth, the NBC football announcer, simultaneously working for a rival while boasting an authority role with the NFL. But tennis has long smiled upon its talent, media or otherwise, engaging in multiple roles that can be perceived as conflicts of interest. Can Gimelstob fairly opine on players he represents for the ATP? Is he overextended?
“I don’t think I have ever worked with a talent who is more open to criticism, who wants to learn,” responded Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel’s chief executive officer. “He is the first to say, ‘Please be critical and tell me how to be better.’”
And for an outgoing, and some have said bombastic, personality like Gimelstob, there’s been criticism.
He’s caused waves with comments about women players and about gays in men’s tennis. Two years ago he offered degrading sexual comments to a Washington, D.C., radio station about Anna Kournikova, causing the U.S. Tennis Association to drop him from its ad campaign. He immediately apologized for the remarks, which to this day he said he deeply regrets.
More recently, in an unpublicized affair, Tennis Channel briefly dropped Gimelstob from the air in March after he made what was perceived as a political knock against President Obama.
Solomon said the problems were more than just the single comment, in which the New Jersey native compared a player’s poor stroke to the president’s policies.
“It got a little heated for a while and we had to have some decisions,” Solomon said, though the popular Gimelstob, known for his incisive tennis analysis and TV presence, quickly returned to the air. The uproar, Solomon insisted, was unconnected to his own high-profile support of the president, pointing to what he said were hundreds of e-mails the channel received complaining about the remark.
Gimelstob acknowledged a disturbance, though he declined to offer details. He conceded, however, that by communicating in so many different outlets, finding a balance is difficult.
“I wasn’t conscious of the power of words and platforms and was driving a million miles a minute,” he said of the challenges in sharing opinions and trying to be funny without offending. “I am shuttling between venues and mediums.”
Gimelstob was born in 1977 to a sporting and well-to-do family. His uncle, Gerry Gimelstob, coached George Washington University’s basketball team from 1981-85 and was an assistant coach to Bobby Knight at Indiana. Justin’s father, Barry, is owner and president of Financial Benefits Research Group in Roseland, N.J.
A New Jersey high school tennis star, Justin played collegiately at UCLA for two years before turning pro in 1996. He entered the sport when Americans dominated, with icons like Sampras, Courier and Agassi ascendant, so the press greeted him with gushing profiles assuming he’d join their ranks. But his career peaked at 63rd in the world in 1999. He became known as much for his outspokenness as his game, which suffered as he endured painful back injuries later in his career that forced his 2007 retirement.
“Deep down, in candor with myself, I never believed I was good enough to be on top of the tennis world,” he said. “I take tremendous pride in what I accomplished.”
Some might raise their eyebrows upon learning Gimelstob possessed self-doubts. Ivan Ljubicic, currently ranked 17th and who served on the ATP board of directors for seven months with Gimelstob in 2007, described being shocked at the young American’s brashness in his first board meetings.
“He is very loud and energetic, and maybe you like it or don’t,” Ljubicic said. “The board meetings were never very quiet when he was around.”
His directness is a big plus with the players, Ljubicic added, because their time is in such short supply and Gimelstob is able to discuss issues quickly. As a former player, he garners respect.
In 2007, Gimelstob nudged out James Blake’s brother, Thomas, for the position, one of six seats on the ATP board, after narrowly losing a vote the year before. During his first term, he played a critical role in choosing the ATP’s executive chairman and president, Adam Helfant, traveling with him in December 2007 to lobby top players for their support. In June, Gimelstob won unopposed a new three-year term, reflecting the positive view players hold of his performance, Ljubicic said.
Last year, Gimelstob moved full time to Southern California, giving up his apartment in Manhattan after breaking up with a girlfriend there. He is trying to complete his UCLA degree, and residing in the entertainment hub of the world doesn’t hurt his ambition to win an even greater media profile.
Despite his lingering back problem, he’ll return to New York in November to run his first marathon, raising money for his charity that benefits children with cancer and blood diseases in his native New Jersey. His friend, the top American player Andy Roddick, bet him $10,000 he couldn’t finish. If he doesn’t, Gimelstob will instead pay $10,000 to Roddick’s charity.
These days, Gimelstob has learned to hold back his opinions. And the man who once touted himself as the most accessible man in tennis, now admits that’s a title he can no longer wear given his ATP responsibilities and growing public persona.
“It’s very hard,” he concluded. “My nature is one of inclusion and being fully accessible. It is an adjustment on my end.”
The U.S. Open tennis tournament has completed several upgrades for this year’s event tied to food concessions and new technology to improve the fan experience over the two-week competition.
Panasonic, a new Open sponsor, is activating its three-year, seven-figure deal with a 3-D viewing lounge inside a 1,400-square-foot, air-conditioned space at Louis Armstrong Stadium. The deal is tied to CBS Sports and DirecTV 3-D broadcasts on Labor Day weekend and Finals weekend.
The electronics manufacturer will have its latest 3-D televisions on display in that storefront and at the Smash Zone, the U.S. Tennis Association’s version of the NFL Experience, said Danny Zausner, the USTA’s managing director.
The Smash Zone and its three tennis courts tied to kids activities are part of the new indoor training center entering its second year of operation. This is the first year the Open has access to all 250,000 square feet of space since the training center opened as an unfinished building in 2009, Zausner said.
Levy Restaurants’ hospitality program will be in “full bloom” at the training center, operating a new 5,000-square-foot, outdoor terrace-style restaurant called Overlook on the roof of the building, Zausner said.
The USTA did a branding deal with Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, a new high-end hotel opening in December in Sin City, and the dining outlet will be themed after the poolside cabanas linked to the brand and its high-end experience, Zausner said. Levy’s menu will reflect the hotel offerings, too.
Mercedes-Benz, another new sponsor in a three-year deal with the USTA, will have its luxury vehicles on display on plazas inside the East and South gates, and will have prominent signage in all three stadiums and on the field courts. Mercedes also sponsors the men’s singles competition, Zausner said.
Food has always been an important part of the Open and this year Levy will roll out a bevy of new offerings and destinations. The South Plaza Master Chef Cafe is one addition. Susan Feniger, Carmen Gonzalez, Tony Mantuano, Rick Moonen and Jonathan Waxman, five chefs showcased on television food shows, will create dishes exclusively for the event and will participate Sept. 5 in a charitable competition.
New food stands include the all-organic Stonyfield Farm and Niman Ranch, a premium sausage brand tied to a network of more than 650 independent farmers. The purveyor’s meats are 100 percent gluten-free, providing an option for tennis fans who have restricted diets.
The USTA’s merchandise operation has also been upgraded with brands such as Wilson Sporting Goods increasing its presence in the main retail shop, Zausner said. The Octagon, responsible for 50 percent of retail revenue, was demolished and rebuilt with points of sale expanding by 25 percent.
Facility Merchandising Inc. operates retail on behalf of the USTA, and the concessions firm coordinates all third-party vendor agreements with brands such as Nike, Lacoste and Polo, Zausner said.
Food and merchandise will get a higher profile inside the East Gate after officials replaced the last building with ties to the original complex that opened in the 1970s, he said. American Express, another Open partner, will have a new booth in an area where U.S. Open collectibles will be sold.
Did you know attending the U.S. Open may be a charitable endeavor? While that may be a stretch, the U.S. Tennis Association, which owns and operates the tournament, is breaking an ad campaign this week designed to explain the importance of the tournament to the group’s mission of promoting tennis. The ad campaign will also focus in general on the group’s efforts.
Most of the USTA’s past ad campaigns have promoted events or encouraged people to play the sport. But this campaign, titled “Making Tennis Make a Difference,” promotes the USTA itself.
One print ad featuring fans at the U.S. Open says: “You’re more than just a fan. While you’re watching the best compete … you’re also serving the community. Proceeds from your involvement allow over 220,000 youth annually to participate in National Junior Tennis and Learning, which seeks to develop the character of young people through tennis and education.”
Some of the other ads will look at the many tennis, educational and other programs the USTA funds.
The ads are directed primarily at the 750,000 USTA members, who internal surveys showed did not understand the link between the glitzy Open and grassroots programs, nor have a full appreciation of everything the USTA does. The Open, which generates a profit of more than $100 million, funds the USTA’s budget. Last year, the USTA directed $45 million to grassroots programs.
The 14 ads were created by New York ad agency Rivet. The ads will appear in print in tennis specialty publications like Tennis Magazine, as well as on broadcasts on each of the three U.S. Open broadcasters. The USTA is spending a mid to high six-figure amount on the campaign, but in full value it is worth more because the USTA did not pay for the TV spots, but received them as promotional inventory in the broadcast deals.
“The USTA is the major funder and driver of tennis programming and development in the United States,” Lucy Garvin, USTA president, said in a prepared statement. “The goal of the campaign is educational — to better build the connection between all the USTA does on behalf of the sport with our fans, participants and USTA members.”