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Clearing The Air: Tennis Channel, ESPN and the Western & Southern Open

Photo: Leslie Billman/Tennisclix

It’s easy to get caught up in a fray. Take sides. Take to social media and air your opinions.

But whether you’re a casual fan or a tireless follower of the game, facts — or at least people’s perceptions of the facts — can slow the fray to a simmer.

This week in Cincinnati at the Western & Southern Open, viewers quickly learned on Monday that Tennis Channel would not show women’s matches. The crew tried to explain a complicated situation in bite-size morsels with the intent to clear the air.

“The USTA has the rights to the WTA matches,” Ted Robinson said, while calling an early round match on Tennis Channel. He then intimated that Tennis Channel was being blocked from broadcasting those matches by the USTA.

“If Ted said that, that’s incorrect,” Eric Abner, executive director of public relations for Tennis Channel, told The Tennis Island in an exclusive interview this week. “We have the rights to show the men’s matches in Cincinnati, but we don’t have the rights to show the women’s matches. We want our fans and viewers to understand that those women’s matches are part of a new arrangement between the USTA and ESPN in case anyone out there thought Tennis Channel doesn’t like women. That’s not the case.”

In fact, from Tennis Channel’s perspective, none of the players in this business arrangement is blocking anyone.

“I don’t think it’s right for to say they’re [USTA] blocking us any more than they’re blocking us from Stanford or Atlanta,” Abner added. “They made the arrangement they made.”

All the chatter is fallout from a contractual deal that started to form as far back as 2013, when ESPN announced “it would take control of the tournament [the U. S. Open] in 2015, ending CBS’s role in it after 46 years,” Richard Sandomir of The New York Times reported in May, 2013. ESPN paid $825 million over 11 years for those rights to air the U.S. Open and the U.S. Open Series on all its platforms: ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3, it’s live-streaming cousin.

All parts of the deal were solidified within the last six months, so the news was nothing new, if you were an insider or an avid reader of everything circling in the tennis universe. To those fans who expected to watch live women’s matches on Tennis Channel, a fury rose like steam from “Old Faithful.”

One fan, Jean Kirschenbaum, was so infuriated that she wrote to USTA Member Services in an email.

Tennis Channel has announced that it cannot televise women’s matches at the Cincinnati Open because of “contractual arrangements” with USTA, which owns the rights. I have also been informed that the same policy will apply to the first week of the U.S. Open. You must be out of your minds at USTA. Can you please explain this sexism?

Also, because of this, I plan to cancel my USTA membership and begin a campaign to get every tennis player I know to do the same thing. I have also alerted the New York Times tennis reporter about this.

USTA Member Services was quick to respond.

Recently you requested personal assistance from our Member Services Department. Below is a summary of your request and our response.

If this issue is not resolved to your satisfaction, you may reopen it within the next seven days.

Thank you for allowing us to be of service to you.

Subject

USTA and Tennis Channel

Thank you for contacting the USTA Member Services Department. 

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Please be assured that this was not a USTA decision and we do not block coverage of events. Tennis Channel opted not to secure the women’s matches emanating from the Western & Southern Open.  The Western & Southern Open can be seen this week on multiple ESPN platforms including ESPN2, ESPNEWS and ESPN3.

Thank you for your continued support of the USTA. If you need further assistance please respond to this email.

According to an anonymous source, Tennis Channel might have been able to sub-license rights from ESPN to show WTA matches in Cincinnati, as long as the USTA agreed, but the cost was huge.

So it all may come down to a he-said, she-said situation. Tennis Channel might just see it all as retribution from the deal made between Citi Open’s owner Donald Dell, which cut ties with ESPN and the U.S. Open Series, after Citi Open’s contract with ESPN ran out. On the other side of the net, the USTA might think Tennis Channel could have broadcast WTA matches from Cincinnati if indeed it wanted to ante up.

“Tennis Channel cannot go in and pick and chose tournaments to cover. The agreement incorporated everything, the entire U.S. Open Series of tournaments,” Abner went on to explain. “Maybe ESPN can sub-license individual tournaments, but I don’t know about that. Historically, I’ve never heard it being set up that way.”

With the U.S. Open scheduled to start on August 31, reactions along the same lines could again surge from fans.

“I’m sure in a couple weeks there will be some people who turn on their TVs and turn on CBS and ask ‘Where’s the tennis?’,” Abner added. “I believe that over time, people will become used to things.”

Photo: Leslie Billman/Tennisclix

Change is not a forte of human behavior. The status quo is comfortable in many cases, especially where sports is concerned. Fans reactions are, therefore, right on target and time.

If Tennis Channel did have the opportunity to buy rights just for Cincinnati and didn’t because of fiduciary concerns, then perhaps all the subtext about a lost opportunity opens the door to new thoughts regarding budgets and hefty price tags. This is where fans lose out and miss out. They expect Tennis Channel to be their source of tennis. When it took over Citi Open and increased broadcast upwards to 170 hours, people were thrilled. Viewership went through the roof.

“It was awesome,” Lisa Nardini, area resident and tennis fan, said. “It was on all the time and from two courts. I expect that from Tennis Channel. ESPN has all these other sports. I want to see tennis on Tennis Channel, not ESPN.”

With too much tennis to put on traditional networks, the problem seems like a good one — yet Tennis Channel, a channel devoted to the sport, is no challenge for ESPN.

“ESPN has the highest license fee in America,” Abner said. “That’s not a criticism. But our reach is a little different than ESPN’s.”

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About Jane Voigt (89 Articles)
Jane Voigt is a recognized tennis journalist who has covered the pro game for over 12 years. She created and owns DownTheTee.com, and has contributed to TennisGrandstand.com, WorldTennisMagazine,com, TennisWeek.com, Tennis Week Magazine, TennisServer.com, and Tennis.com.

5 Comments on Clearing The Air: Tennis Channel, ESPN and the Western & Southern Open

  1. Nice writeup on a very messy situation. I hope the parties involved can come to some sort of agreement because in the end the biggest loser in this situation are WTA fans.

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  2. Yep, you’re exactly right. We’ll see where these contracts take the game.

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  3. I think Tennis Channel is being quite disingenuous and dare I say it, not very truthful in this situation. As someone who has TC, they have repeatedly on many occassions forced fans to sign on to their TC Plus service in order to watch women’s matches. I am, therefore, not in the least bit buying their arguments that they were prevented in some way shape or form by either ESPN or the USTA, or indeed the WTA from airing matches from Cincy. They have repeatedly and without any rhyme or reason consistently have total and complete disregard for the WTA product. It was only recently that they blocked folks on TennisTV from watching a women’s semifinal that had its own streaming link to show the Bryan Brothers doubles in Cincy. When fans protested, we were told that we should subscribe to TC Plus in order to watch this particular match.

    I have had Tennis Channel going on 8 years now and their lack of coverage of WTA events, or the constant tape delayed versions of matches leaves a lot to be desired. While I was unhappy about the fact that I had to watch Cincy women’s matches on my computer, it is par for the course with TC to do this type of thing.

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  4. Connie Thomas // August 27, 2015 at 7:59 am // Reply

    I knew there would be some crap when espn took over showing of matches. We never get good coverage of women matches. The espn reporters who clearly didn’t follow the game should not have been trying to comment. It was such a distraction seeing them looking down while reading from papers , deferring to those in the know, and not knowing an interviewee by name. Everyone is not connected or thrilled about watching tennis via computer. Espn never gives women sports the coverage it gives men.

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  5. The Spin’s comment is exactly why I refuse to purchase TC Plus. It isn’t cost effective when one looks at the list of tournaments being covered and it benefits an organization who has not treated its customers or the sport with much respect, specifically the WTA. When TC Plus began I did not understand their business plan because it was clear that the product was the same so they would be manipulating me as a customer. Why should I pay twice for the same thing? And moving forward, TC’s value will continue to decrease as ESPN will have the rights of three slams. I guess the French Open is TC’s. Maybe TC will focus on the clay season…

    It isn’t hard to understand why tennis isn’t growing! Following a sport should not be this difficult. IT should not be like tic-tac-toe or bingo.

    Now I wonder, will TC be able to air US Open matches as re-runs in the evenings and post the tournament as it has done in the past?

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