Wimbledon to ESPN, and what’s beyond

When it comes to keeping sporting events on broadcast in the US, could Wimbledon be a victim of its own relative popularity?

Compare Wimbledon to the French Open. Both events air at about the same time of year, in about the same time slots, on NBC and ESPN2. But NBC airs Wimbledon coverage on weekdays during the second week, and doesn’t do the same for Roland Garros until the men’s semifinals on the last Friday. The result: American tennis fans harboring seething hatred towards NBC for tape-delaying Wimbledon matches during the second week to air its Today show, which may have cost NBC their part of the Wimbledon contract, despite apparently promising to end those delays down the road. (Reading between the lines, one could surmise that NBC was willing to show matches live, so long as they could do so on their own Versus network once ESPN’s contract ended after 2013. This may have come down to the mere fact that the cable rights weren’t up at the same time.)

Now, tennis has fallen so far in popularity that the fact there is any tennis in the middle of the week at all on broadcast television is clearly a relic of the days when Americans actually cared about tennis. Still, it’s rather odd that the more prestigious and popular Wimbledon will apparently become a cable-only affair, while the less prestigious Roland Garros will continue to have an NBC presence… at least in the short term, because while I don’t know how long NBC’s French Open contract lasts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow Wimbledon to cable, as it barely makes a blip on the sports radar ratings-wise these days.

Interestingly, there will be coverage of Wimbledon on regular ESPN during the second week, including the mens’ and womens’ finals, with ESPN and ESPN2 providing simultaneous coverage of different parts of the same event, which they’ve previously only done for soccer tournaments during the last round of group play. This obvious use of ESPN’s family of networks is why I had been hoping for ESPN to win the NCAA Tournament or Olympic contracts, events popular enough to actually justify such use, but it was not to be. What makes this interesting is that regular ESPN doesn’t cover the US Open, which is more popular stateside, but there is more sports competition that time of year. Also, there is normally some kind of soccer tournament in late June and early July at least every other year; would Wimbledon interfere with coverage of the World Cup or Euro tournament? I might have ordinarily expected ESPN to hand some of the coverage off to Tennis Channel, like they do for the US Open.

Apparently, besides NBC, Fox was considering making a run, but the thought of Fox doing a sport as straight-laced as tennis makes me shudder. However, I’m surprised CBS apparently didn’t make a run. They already carry the US Open and don’t have a morning show worth salvaging. On the other hand, the rest of their daytime is in better shape than NBC’s. But after losing out on the NHL and Olympics, in the end this represents ESPN’s first true head-to-head sports rights victory over NBC since the Comcast merger went through, even if a small one, and the first time anyone other than Fox has ended an incumbency. Because of the problems with NBC’s coverage, however, it’s unclear what it represents for NBC’s long-term prospects against ESPN.

We may find out about that soon enough, though, for far more than a mere blip on the radar like tennis. There’s an unexpected new battleground on the horizon. The NFL may be making plans to take Thursday Night Football full-season as a consolation prize for not getting their 18-game schedule. And that could be, by far, the biggest battleground in sight. More on this one later.

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