SBJ/May 22-28, 2017/Media

ESPN deepens its investment in Wimbledon

ESPN is investing more in Wimbledon, even as the network has cut back on some rights in tennis.

For the first time, ESPN will televise parts of the Wimbledon qualifier rounds before the early July tournament. The All England Lawn Tennis Club, which owns the event, said ESPN is paying a rights fee for the new content. ESPN described its financial outlay as directed to production costs.

For the first time, ESPN will televise parts of the Wimbledon qualifier rounds.
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Maria Sharapova’s likely entry into the Wimbledon qualification tournament did not play a role in the decision, said Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling, but her matches would likely be aired live on ESPN2 or ESPN. These matches would mark her return to Grand Slam play after a lengthy doping suspension.

Qualifications play is for lower-ranked players. The men’s and women’s brackets have 128 players apiece, and 16 emerge from each to qualify for the main tournament.

“They are fully committed. We have a long-term relationship with ESPN,” said Mick Desmond, the All England Club’s commercial and media director. “Jamie Reynolds, [an ESPN vice president] who leads from the production perspective, is here with a full team. … We work with them across their broadcast business, their production business, their marketing team, their digital team, their hospitality team.”

ESPN in 2012 started a 12-year, $500 million deal to televise the entire main event. It has more recently cut back on other tennis rights, most notably the French Open.

Production of the qualifying rounds is not an incidental cost because the matches occur at a different location, in Roehampton three miles from the Wimbledon grounds. (The main venue’s grass courts would be rendered all but unplayable with another three rounds of play.)

The plans are so new that ESPN has not decided whether to provide talent to announce the new matches.

“It is good competition under the Wimbledon brand and something that is important to us,” Magnus said. The deal includes streaming, and most of the matches will be on ESPN3 and streamed on WatchESPN, with a few exceptions — like Sharapova — making it on to the linear network.

The All England Club will produce the feed for the qualifications, a dry run of sorts for when it takes over that role from the BBC next year at the main event. The BBC will also pick up matches, as will Eurosport and Fox Asia. ESPN’s rights include North and South America.

ESPN does not plan to air the qualification rounds at the U.S. Open, the other significant tennis tournament that the sports network carries. The Open between 2012 and 2014 aired qualification rounds on CBS Sports Net, but that arrangement ended when ESPN bumped CBS from the tournament.

An Open spokesman said that, at least for 2017, the only way to watch qualification matches will be to attend them.

The Wimbledon qualifying rounds are scheduled to begin June 26, and the main tournament the following week.
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