ESPN Goes ‘All In’ With 12-Year Wimbledon Rights Deal, Primed To Expand Production
Breakfast at Wimbledon will have a new home next year, following ESPN’s successful bid to buy the tournament’s full U.S.-rights package. ESPN’s 12-year, reportedly $480 million deal with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) ends NBC’s 43-year relationship with the tournament.
The “all-in deal,” as ESPN EVP of Content John Skipper calls it, includes the exclusive U.S. TV, broadband, and mobile rights to all the live action from Wimbledon, including both the Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Singles Finals, beginning in 2012. The agreement unifies the entire tournament under a single broadcast entity, a goal that was key to the All England Club’s decision.
“We made it clear to our existing partners NBC and ESPN and to others that we saw advantages of a coherent single partnership,” says Ian Ritchie, chief executive of the All England Club. “I think, if you have two separate organizations telling the story, inevitably, there is a danger of it being confused. “
The Programming Effect
ESPN will deliver Wimbledon live on its array of platforms, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3.com, and Watch ESPN mobile applications. ESPN will also end the practice of tape-delaying key matches, which NBC had done for years — much to the dismay of most U.S. viewers.
ESPN will televise the semifinals and finals. Disney Co. sibling ABC will re-air the finals at 3 p.m. on a same-day basis, will broadcast a three-hour highlights show on the middle Sunday of the tournament (a rest day for the players), but will air no live Wimbledon coverage.
The Production Effect
ESPN already has a massive production presence at the All England Club, having produced the bulk of the early- and mid-round Wimbledon coverage for nine years. As a result, ESPN’s level of manpower and resources is not expected to see much of a bump.
“[The number of crew members] will not change significantly,” says Skipper. “Remember, we’re bringing hundreds of hours back to the U.S. already. I think NBC was doing about 38. So we’ve got most of the scale we need there already. We take a nice group over to London for a long encampment somewhere between two and three weeks, and they’re there for the duration of the tournament.”
ESPN will continue to add new technology and production elements during its Wimbledon coverage, as it has in each of the past nine years. In addition, Skipper says, 3D (produced for the first time this year by BBC, Sony, and AELTC) will continue to be a part of ESPN’s Wimbledon roadmap.
“[In terms of] the production, we continue to want to innovate and do new things,” adds Skipper. “You will see us doing more 3D with the Club. I think you’ll look for us to continue to find interesting, graphic ways to show shot trajectories and speeds.”
Tape Delay Goes by the Wayside
The issue of tape delay played a prime role in the negotiations, because NBC was hesitant to end its policy of airing selected matches later in the day. Comcast’s NBC-Versus bid called for a totally live Wimbledon by 2014, but that was not soon enough for the All England Club.
“Certainly, a factor we looked at in the new deal in the future was very much, can we put live out,” says Ritchie. “There is a place for time delay, but there is no question that the sports viewer nowadays wants to see things live. Therefore, as far as we’re concerned, undoubtedly, one of the advantages with this arrangement was to increase the amount of live coverage of Wimbledon.”
ESPN and ESPN2 will televise matches simultaneously during the second Monday-Wednesday, allowing for expanded coverage of the Round of 16 and live telecasts of all quarterfinals. Overall, ESPN networks will boost their live coverage from 100 hours to 140 hours.
A Multiplatform Push on the Grass Court
Live Wimbledon tennis on ESPN3.com will go from 650 hours to 750 hours, including live semis and finals coverage, and feature live streams from as many as 10 courts at once. “We’re getting dangerously close to 1,000 hours of live tennis during the two weeks,” Skipper points out.
According to him, Wimbledon’s presence in the mobile space will primarily be on Watch ESPN mobile applications, which allow users to view ESPN’s linear networks online and on mobile devices. Currently, Watch ESPN apps are available only to Time Warner Cable, Bright House, and Verizon FiOS subscribers on iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android devices.
“My guess is that most of the mobile viewing will be the nature of when these matches occur, many of them being early morning in the U.S. or the work hours in the U.S.” he says. “Lots of people will take advantage to watch the linear networks on a mobile device.”
Where Does This Leave Tennis Channel, McEnroe?
The tournament’s departure from the Peacock seemingly leaves a few players on uneven footing, most notably Tennis Channel — which has televised selected Wimbledon windows for four years — and NBC Wimbledon stalwart John McEnroe.
Ritchie acknowledges that the AELTC has discussed a potential arrangement to keep some Wimbledon matches on Tennis Chanel but says that nothing has been finalized. Skipper adds that he met with Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon in London and has “indicated an interest to continue working with them.”
As for McEnroe, he has worked the booth for ESPN’s US Open coverage in the past, and his NBC Sports contract is reportedly a non-exclusive deal, potentially opening the door for ESPN.
“We already work with John on the US Open, and we’ve expressed to John before that we would love to expand our relationship with him,” says Skipper. “I’m not announcing anything, but we think John McEnroe’s very strong on this.”
A Growing Arms Race With NBC Sports Group
ESPN’s successful Wimbledon bid is just the latest battle in what has quickly become a genuine arms race between ESPN and Comcast’s recently formed NBC Sports Group, which is attempting to make Versus a legitimate competitor to ESPN. The network’s Wimbledon victory comes on the heels of NBC Sports Group’s successful bids for exclusive U.S. rights to the NHL and the 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020 Olympic Games.
“We are cognizant of the fact that NBC Comcast is a formidable competitor and will be at the table and has been at the table over the last six or eight months for rights,” says Skipper. “But we also expect to see some of our other long‑term competitors at the table. We’re cognizant that they’re there and they’re formidable, but it doesn’t really change the nature of what we do.”