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Volume 21 No. 27
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ESPN bids French Open adieu after 13 years

Add the French Open to the growing list of properties that are leaving ESPN.

In the wake of losing rights to properties like the British Open, U.S. Open golf, NASCAR and the NHRA, ESPN is walking away from the French Open after 13 years.

ESPN wasn’t in line for matches and time slots from Roland Garros.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
While media attention in recent months has focused on cost-cutting moves in Bristol, ESPN executives said the move on the event had nothing to do with saving money.

Rather, they say the decision is based on the network’s position as the second or third TV outlet covering the tournament — behind NBC and Tennis Channel. That meant ESPN did not always get the matches, or time slots, it wanted, which has led to meager ratings for its coverage

French Open Viewership on ESPN2

2013 – 298,000 viewers
2014 – 233,000 viewers
2015 – 267,000 viewers

of the Grand Slam.

“Ratings generally speaking for the French were a bit lower than the U.S. Open,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming. “We are running a dynamic business, and it was a decision taken more as a strategic decision that had to do, at the heart of it, we were one of three distributors, or outlets if you will, for the French.”

Over the last three years, ESPN2 ratings for its French Open coverage averaged 0.2, bottoming out with an average of 233,000 viewers for the 2014 tournament. Earlier this year, the average inched up to 267,000 viewers for its weekday morning coverage.

ESPN2’s regular programming produces more viewers in that weekday morning time slot. In the week before this year’s French Open, for example, “First Take” averaged 450,000 viewers and “Mike & Mike” averaged 263,000.

The matches are likely to move over to NBC Sports Network, though NBC has not begun talks with Tennis Channel, which holds the event’s rights through 2023. NBC has been the French Open’s primary U.S. broadcast TV home since 1975, largely covering the weekend matches.

The morning block of international programming fits in with NBC’s strategy. It has found success by showing English Premier League games and Formula One races, for example.

To underscore the point that ESPN’s decision was not part of the network’s cost-cutting moves, sources said ESPN paid Tennis Channel a sublicense fee in the low seven-figure range — a figure that is the lowest of tennis’ four Grand Slam events, by far.

Plus, ESPN sources say the event did not cost a lot of money to produce. The network opted to use the international feed produced by Tennis Channel.

ESPN2 has carried French Open matches since 2003.

The move marks a slight shift for ESPN, which over the years has looked to increase its rights around tennis’ Grand Slam events to improve continuity.

At Wimbledon, ESPN controls the whole package, with Tennis Channel cutting a separate deal with the rights holders, the All England Club. At the U.S. Open, it is Tennis Channel that sublicenses from ESPN, a deal that will continue, Guglielmino said. ESPN has one more tournament remaining on its sublicense with Tennis Channel for the Australian Open. Asked about ESPN’s commitment to that event, Guglielmino said the sublicense was different than the French Open one, and he remained committed to the event.