On Thursday, the USTA and ESPN jointly announced that, as of 2015, the network will become the official broadcast partner of the organization that owns and presents the US Open. This is a landmark tennis -- and media -- event, another major step in how tennis fits into an evolving broadcast and digital landscape.
In short, the event is moving to a new vista that is ideally suited to the game.
Tennis in general has always suffered -- and continues to suffer to this very day in some places -- from having too much product and too little bandwidth on which to showcase it. The sheer number of matches, especially at a major, makes it difficult to translate on a single television channel. The announcement that ESPN plans to stream every main-draw singles match -- on personal computers, tablets and smartphones -- is a solution to a long-standing problem. It allows digital-savvy tennis viewers to tailor their experience.
“On the first day of our discussions, the USTA asked us about the possibility of providing coverage of all 17 courts,” ESPN President John Skipper said in a conference call Thursday. “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.”
The previously announced change in the semifinals and finals schedule -- one that tennis stakeholders (led by the players) had lobbied for -- also comes into play here. Super Saturday had outlived its usefulness. That format, which forced the women to play their semifinals on Friday and final on Saturday and the men to play Saturday semis and a Sunday final, without the traditional day of rest in between, ends after 2014.
A cable and digital play, rather than a traditional network, combined with more breathing room in the schedule, gives the US Open some much-needed flexibility. ESPN has multiple channels to show events on -- preventing the kind of outcome tennis fans saw when the Sony Open in Miami cut away before the final was over because the network airing it had other sports commitments.
Make no mistake, this deal is another example of how the structure of tennis, and its unique problems -- or opportunities -- are fitting into an evolving television and digital environment.