Extending the Open’s reach
Published August 30, 2010
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.