ESPN Lands Comprehensive US Open Rights, Will Stream Live Matches From All 17 Courts Beginning in 2015
ESPN added yet another feather to its growing tennis Grand Slam cap on Thursday, inking an 11-year deal with the USTA to televise the entire US Open tournament, beginning in 2015. After 46 years on CBS Sports, the Men’s and Women’s Semifinal and Final matches will move to cable on ESPN, which now owns the complete rights to three of the four Grand Slam tournaments — the US Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open — as well as a large chunk of the French Open.
“I would submit to you fairly categorically that we expect the audience for the US Open to increase, not to decrease,” ESPN President John Skipper said during a conference call in reference to the tournament’s move from broadcast to cable. “With all the platforms that we have digitally … every match during the course of this agreement will be made available on ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPN3. Moving to ESPN allows an opportunity to reach more people across more platforms, and that’s what we believe will happen.”
The new deal, which is reportedly worth upwards of $770 million (according to SportsBusiness Journal) will push ESPN’s current 100 hours of live US Open matches to more than 130 hours in 2015, including the addition of three full days of coverage during Labor Day weekend and the men’s and women’s Semis and Finals. ESPN will also benefit from the new US Open scheduling format set to begin in 2015, in which the women’s and men’s semifinal matches will be televised in primetime on Thursday and Friday, respectively. The Finals then take place the following Saturday and Sunday, giving a day of rest for all players before the final.
A Very Different Truck Compound: ESPN To Take Over the World Feed
In addition, ESPN will begin producing the world-feed telecast for the USTA in 2015, a task that has historically belonged to CBS. ESPN and CBS have long worked hand-in-hand in the truck compound at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, often sharing facilities and coordinating their production operations. That will all come to an end in 2015.
“There will, of course, be some changes [in ESPN’s production plan],” said Skipper. “CBS has done a fantastic job at providing a world feed. We have benefited from that. We appreciate that. In 2015, ESPN will become the provider of the world feed.”
CBS failed to come to an agreement during its 60-day exclusive negotiating window, which ended at the end of April, according to USTA Executive Director/COO Gordon Smith. At that point, ESPN entered the equation and, with the new deal in place, will now take over as the head honcho of the sprawling Flushing truck compound in 2015.
Streaming Every Point From Every Court
The deal also includes the rights to live-stream every match from all 17 tournament courts on ESPN3 and simulcast the linear feed to the network’s WatchESPN TV Everywhere offering. In recent years, USOpen.org has streamed every match from the six TV courts (Arthur Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand, and Courts 11, 13, and 17), but ESPN is now guaranteeing that ESPN3 will carry every single point from all 17 courts.
“On the first day of our discussions, the USTA asked us about the possibility of providing coverage of all 17 courts,” said Skipper. “There right now is what I hope will soon become an anachronistic phrase: they have six television courts. We were happy to give our answer pretty quickly that our intention during the course of this tournament is to make every one of those matches available, and we’re excited by that.”
This will necessitate addition of the necessary video-production infrastructure and camera complements to the remaining 11 courts, but Skipper stopped short of offering a specific timetable on when that will become a reality at the Tennis Center.
According to Skipper, these feeds will also be streamed via an ESPN video player on USOpen.org, which has streamed every tournament match for the past two years.
Tennis Channel Out of the Mix?
One aspect that has yet to be fleshed out is the role of Tennis Channel, which has sublicensed a smaller US Open package from ESPN in recent years. Skipper would not confirm that Tennis Channel will remain in the mix in 2015.
I have not had a chance to talk to [Chairman/CEO] Ken Solomon at the Tennis Channel yet,” he said. “We have a many-year relationship and a history of looking at whether there’s mutual benefit for us to sublicense back and forth. We expect to have a conversation. I can’t really comment on what we might do because we haven’t had that conversation yet.”
The Rain-Delay Question
Inclement weather has pushed the Men’s Final from Sunday to Monday for five consecutive years. While ESPN has a bevy of platforms to offer, that Monday-night timeslot will be occupied by the opening week of network’s marquee property, Monday Night Football, likely pushing the Final to ESPN2.
While Skipper said that ESPN does not “have any concerns about rain delays or contingencies” and that “we and the USTA have a plan,” the potential move to ESPN2 would likely be a blow to the tournament’s exposure. And, barring the addition of a long-rumored roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, the move would be a distinct possibility when the deal commences in 2015.
“Certainly, we think the Final on ESPN would be fantastic,” said STA Chairman/President Dave Haggerty. “We also know that ESPN2 has great coverage as well. Given the choice, ESPN would be where we would want to be. They have many platforms, but again, that would be our hope.”