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Volume 21 No. 2
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USTA eyes higher Open rights fees

Intent to build roof part of CBS talks

The U.S. Tennis Association is in early talks to renew its broadcast agreement with CBS Sports for the U.S. Open and has communicated that the group expects a hefty increase from the current $20 million annually, sources said. The current deal runs through the 2014 event.

The USTA also has indicated in the early talks that its goal is to have a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium by 2017, these sources said. The event has been plagued by rain in recent years, with five consecutive men’s finals having been forced to Monday from Sunday.

The expectation of a higher rights fee in the future may explain why the USTA last week announced it had agreed to player demands of paying out a significant increase in prize money.

“We have begun discussions with CBS,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said. “We are exploring a roof and want to have a roof, but I can’t say by 2017 we will have one.”

CBS, which has broadcast the U.S. Open since 1968, declined to comment.

Whether the U.S. Open can get a higher rights fee is uncertain. The group is banking on a healthy rights fee environment, the sources said, with sports like college football enjoying tremendous growth. Additionally, the proliferation of sports channels and the demand for DVR-proof programming like live sports has the USTA convinced it can do better than $20 million a year.

Of course, the ratings for tennis are not healthy. The sport in the United States also is in need of some major American contenders, and while some young players have emerged, like Sloane Stephens, these players are not yet at the top of the sport.

Last year’s Andy Murray-Novak Djokovic men’s Open final drew a 2.4 rating, tied with the Juan Martin del Potro-Roger Federer final in 2009 for the best final rating over the past five years, but those figures are well below the ratings drawn when an American player has been in the final. Andy Roddick’s loss to Federer in 2006 drew a 4.1 rating, and Federer’s win over Andre Agassi in 2005 drew a 4.8 rating. Even those ratings are well below the 6.2 rating earned by the Pete Sampras-Agassi final in 2002 or the 6.3 rating for the Agassi-Todd Martin final of 1999.

“If it is just broadcast, it is not such a super-heated market,” said sports TV consultant Mike Trager. “Any increase would be nominal.”

As Trager noted, while rights fees are exploding with the launch of new sports channels, most of the increases are on the cable side. The Open is signed with ESPN through 2014, so the USTA might be able to negotiate a better package across the board when their current deals expire.

The Open also has not been defined just by ratings, especially because it is almost always up against the NFL and college football. CBS has long favored the event for its New York location, allowing the network to entertain clients at the event. And the high-end demographic that watches tennis is another lure.

While the USTA wants to build a roof, certainly before that can happen, the event will remain vulnerable to the type of rainouts that have plagued the Open broadcasts in recent years. The USTA also is eliminating the CBS-favored Super Saturday format of two men’s semifinals and the women’s final on the same day, effective in 2015. At that point, the men’s semifinals will be on Friday, making the weekend window less appealing.

The Open has at the least headed off any chances of players sitting out the tournament this year over prize money, a prospect that some within the ATP ranks did not dismiss as far fetched not so long ago. The players have been agitating for a significant increase in prize money, and after resisting that call for some time, the USTA last week relented and said it would double the purse by 2017.