SBJ/Sept. 20-26, 2010/Facilities

TV contract, weather, have USTA once again talking roof

Rain delay at US OpenGetty Images
Rain at the U.S. Open has forced the delay of three consecutive men's finals.
Following the controversial, rain-delayed end of this year’s U.S. Open Tennis Championships, the event’s owner, the U.S. Tennis Association, says it will strongly consider building a roof to avoid in the future the ratings downfall that has hit the tournament.

The move marks a shift for the USTA in its position on adding a covering to the Open’s home, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It also comes as the USTA is entering contract renewal talks with CBS Sports, which sources said has become unhappy not just with the rain delays, but also declining ratings and the lack of Americans at the top of the sport.

As a result, CBS, the sources said, may now move to decrease the $21 million annually it currently pays the USTA for the Open rights, as well as insist on compensation for rain delays. The broadcast contract expires after the 2011 tournament.

Overall ratings for CBS’s tournament coverage this year were down 6 percent. The network is providing make-goods to Open advertisers in other sports programming because the tourney failed to meet CBS’s ratings expectations.

“The event fits extremely well in our overall sports portfolio. We just have to make sure we make a reasonable deal for the corporation,” said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports.

McManus declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, which have begun and are expected to conclude in the coming months. He did, however, say a roof would be welcome, so he was happy to hear that the USTA may be changing its tune on that matter.

“We have a responsibility to present the matches on a timely basis,” said Lucy Garvin, the USTA president. “We have to recognize that this is not simple for the media, that we provide a product and we need to make sure we deliver it. To say a roof is not in the picture is not accurate. It is when we will do it.”

That is a change from the USTA’s previous position that the cost of a roof, believed to be well north of $150 million, is not justified because rain only affects a small part of the event and the money would be better spent on grassroots tennis. But Garvin described the rain delays as hurting the promotional value of the Open, the financial engine of the USTA.

Three consecutive men’s finals have now been delayed after decades of few major interruptions from the elements. CBS lost last year’s women’s final altogether, with rain pushing the match to Sunday night and an ESPN2 broadcast.

The broadcast of this year’s men’s final, between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, was split between CBS and ESPN2 after the match was further delayed on Monday because of rain. At 2.17 million viewers, viewership of the match was down 36 percent from last year and was only two-fifths of the 5.36 million viewers who tuned in for the last final to be held on a Sunday, in 2007.

But a TV source said it was not just the rain but the overall tournament that left CBS disappointed. Other than a thrilling semifinal match between Djokovic and Roger Federer, this source said, the event did not deliver the ratings CBS had promised to advertisers.

Sources also said CBS may look to end the Saturday night women’s final, a staging that is now a decade old and was created at a time when the Williams sisters were routinely playing in finals. The ratings more recently have been poor, and the latest mark was the worst yet, with Kim Clijsters’ easy win in this year’s final bringing a 1.7 rating.

ESPN2, in its second year as the Open’s cable broadcaster, said ratings were flat at 0.7, but that was only after adding in the bonus of being able to carry the second half of the men’s final.
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