After holding serve for 45 years, CBS has lost the rights to the nation's premier tennis tournament.
ESPN on Thursday said it has clinched an 11-year deal with the United States Tennis Assn. for the exclusive TV rights, beginning in 2015, for the annual U.S. Open tennis tournament. ESPN declined to comment on speculation that it shelled out close to $75 million annually for the rights, a steep increase from what the USTA had been getting in its previous contract.
The U.S. Open is one of the sport's four Grand Slam tournaments and a celebrated event that unfolds over two weeks in late summer in New York.
Currently, three networks share coverage of the U.S. Open: CBS, ESPN and the Santa Monica-based Tennis Channel. ESPN began providing partial coverage of the tournament in 2009. But for years, CBS has owned the marquee weekend matches, including the men's and women's finals.
The move should make it easier for tennis fans to find the matches on one television outlet, rather than the current channel-bouncing that was going on.
"We believe in the continued importance of live events and we are pleased and proud to have this privilege," John Skipper, ESPN president, said in a conference call Thursday with reporters. ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.
For CBS, having the U.S. Open has been something of a mixed blessing. While tennis attracts a well-to-do audience that advertisers covet, its numbers are relatively small compared to other professional sports. Also, the Open has often caused problems for the tightly scheduled network, as rain delays are not uncommon in early September in New York. Matches would run later than anticipated, causing scheduling problems, sometimes bumping into CBS' coverage of NFL football. And for the past several years, sloppy weather forced the men's final to be played on a Monday, a day late.
In addition to the scheduling issues, there are currently no U.S. men players as top seeds, which reduces interest among casual viewers. Last year's ratings hit an all-time low.
"We are proud of our long-term association with the USTA and wish them well," CBS said in a statement. "Looking ahead, we have profitable partnerships with all of our key sports franchises locked up for many, many years to come, including the NFL, NCAA men's basketball championship, SEC football, PGA Tour and the PGA Championship. And in the meantime, we look forward to two more years of tennis on CBS."
ESPN said Thursday that beginning with the 2015 tournament, it would provide the main feed to foreign broadcasters and expand the digital offerings so fans in the U.S. could watch games on their computers and tablets.
When pressed, USTA executives said they weren't unhappy with CBS, but that ESPN offered a more lucrative package. CBS has been paying less than $25 million a year for its rights, according to knowledgeable people who asked not to be identified.
USTA officials said they negotiated with CBS during the network's 60-day exclusive window but could not come to terms. The USTA started talks with ESPN as soon as CBS' window expired.
"CBS has been a fabulous partner. This was about moving forward," said Gordon Smith, executive director of the USTA.
The move means that people whose TVs receive only broadcast signals -- about 15 million homes in the nation -- will not have access to the coverage.
"We expect the audience for the U.S. Open to increase -- not decrease," Skipper said.
ESPN has aggressively been adding marquee events to its roster as its competitor Fox Sports prepares to launch its own pair of national sports cable channels in August.
Two years ago, ESPN scooped up the rights to the Wimbledon tournament from NBC, which had broadcast the signature London events for more than 40 years. Wimbledon officials were frustrated that NBC often showed matches on a tape-delay basis.
ESPN's Skipper did not rule out sharing early matches with the Tennis Channel, but he said it was too early to say because those discussions haven't taken place. The Tennis Channel has sought to build its identity with marquee events, and holds the rights to the upcoming French Open.
ESPN promised to provide at least 130 hours of live U.S. Open matches and plans to provide court coverage to all 17 courts used during the tournament. In addition to ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3 (which is not as widely distributed), all telecasts will be available on WatchESPN.