American television’s coverage of major-tournament tennis is never less complicated than at the Australian Open each January. ESPN2 has to work around its college basketball programming at times, but Tennis Channel picks up the early window of coverage on most if not all days, and deep into the night, ESPN2 and ESPN are all too happy to provide live coverage of a signature sporting event, without competing sports programming.
Wimbledon is the second least complicated tournament as far as American television is concerned. The prominence of the tournament does lead to a number of decisions that veer in the direction of valuing superstars over close matches, but ESPN’s complete coverage of the tournament, especially during the early days of the second week, satisfactorily addresses a number of problems that have historically visited American television networks at the majors.
The two more complicated major tournaments for American tennis fans are clearly the French Open (in first place, or rather, “worst place”) and the U.S. Open. Why have these two tournaments caused such headaches for television watchers in the States? The answer is simply that too many networks divide the coverage, with all sorts of turf battles and coverage questions affecting the availability of certain matches and live-streaming services.
Roland Garros has been a notoriously difficult tournament for Americans to follow not only because of NBC’s tape-delay package on the first weekend and its Today Show-based delay of the second men’s semifinal each year, but because of the three-way split involving NBC, ESPN, and primary rightsholder Tennis Channel. The different competing interests — and the different levels of resources each parent company brings to coverage of the event — create an overwhelmingly cluttered reality in Paris.
Viewers in various time zones don’t know what to expect on a regular basis from NBC. When ESPN/ESPN2 and Tennis Channel begin their time windows, the availability of streams and the choices of televised matches are often in flux. It’s hard to know if the decision to show one match over another is a true tennis decision or a rights-based (or embargo-based) decision. American fans have had to live with these kinds of tension points for many years at Roland Garros.
At the U.S. Open, change is in the year, but the 2014 event reminded American tennis fans of an important distinction: While it’s definitely necessary to have two channels covering a major tournament at the same time, those two channels either need to be from the same parent company, or they need to have a more seamless relationship if they’re not under the same corporate umbrella.
WHY IT’S HARD FOR TENNIS TO KEEP TRUCKING ALONG AT THE MAJORS
It’s true that with ESPN taking over for CBS next year, the fortnight in New York should be a less stressful time for American tennis viewers. Tennis Channel’s role at the 2015 U.S. Open and beyond has yet to be fully determined, as mentioned in this piece of analysis by Richard Sandomir of the New York Times. By all means, read the whole piece to get the full story on the future of U.S. Open coverage in America, but note the specific point that ESPN has the final say on allotting coverage to other networks such as Tennis Channel. ESPN and Tennis Channel need to reach an agreement, and that has not happened yet (though it most likely will).
In 2015 and beyond, with CBS out of the picture, ESPN and Tennis Channel will probably team up. This leaves two dedicated outlets for television coverage instead of three. This moves the U.S. Open away from the “too many cooks” dynamic seen with the three-way split at Roland Garros. That’s a good thing.
What’s unfortunate about the move is that as poorly as CBS covered the U.S. Open on a number of levels over the past decade, the past three years witnessed the arrival of CBS Sports Network as a companion channel to CBS’s network broadcast. CBS would cover matches on one court, generally the featured matches over the three-day Labor Day weekend, while CBS Sports Network would get the secondary matches on Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand. CBS’s ownership of the event translated into more thorough tennis coverage because a parent company was willing to use two channels, giving its cable network the added programming inventory.
ESPN and ESPN2 use this same approach during the second week of Wimbledon, and it’s always the point when American tennis television reaches its height in terms of friendliness to viewers. The instructive comment to make here is that it doesn’t take three or even two separate corporations (and their families of channels) to sufficiently cover a major. As long as one company has at least two of its channels dedicated to the event in the same time windows, everything works. Because Tennis Channel is an isolated channel without a second television outlet, any arrangement with ESPN works fine as long as the two networks:
A) don’t televise the same match at the same time;
B) are generous, rather than restrictive, in terms of allotting streaming availability, which — at the French Open — doesn’t regularly happen.
If any one moment from this U.S. Open showed why multiple channels, not multiple companies in charge of coverage, represent the true answer to various television problems during major tennis tournaments, it was the fourth-round match on Labor Day between Stan Wawrinka and Tommy Robredo.
CBS Sports Network signed off on Labor Day before the end of its seven-hour window, at 6 p.m. Eastern time. CBS SN left to cover a different sporting event near the bottom of the 5 p.m. hour. CBS stayed on until the end of its window, at 5:57 p.m., but it was not willing to stay on the air to cover the remainder of the Wawrinka-Robredo first set, which worked its way to 5-4 and then 5-all before Wawrinka eventually took the set, 7-5, just after 6:20 p.m. Thankfully, viewers were able to see the very end of the set, but they weren’t able to see the previous few tense games that built up to the conclusion of the set.
Things got so confused between 5:57 and roughly 6:14 p.m. Note the time stamp of nine minutes after the hour (3 p.m. Pacific, 6 Eastern) from Brad Gilbert of ESPN2:
Everybody the tennis is on now on espn2 Stanimal vs Trob
— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) September 1, 2014
If you paste this tweet into your browser and access the replies to the tweet, you’ll see that American viewers did not yet have tennis on ESPN2. The network was showing SportsCenter as a time-filler.
ESPN’s best, most responsive, and most viewer-friendly on-air tennis voice is Darren Cahill. He stepped in to clarify the situation, providing a detail that should have come from ESPN itself:
For those wondering, we can only get into the production truck once CBS goes off air. It takes 15 min for us to switch everything.
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) September 1, 2014
At roughly 6:14, give or take one minute, ESPN2 came on and caught the end of the first set of Wawrinka-Robredo, but fans were left wondering why this production-truck situation had to exist in the first place.
To be fair to ESPN corporate, this situation could have been prevented first and foremost if CBS had been willing to shift this match to CBS Sports Network, a sports-dedicated channel without need to go to national affiliates for local news or other local programming. CBS Sports Network could have shown the end of the Wawrinka-Robredo first set until after 6:20. With the night session not to start until 7:10 at Arthur Ashe Stadium — Wawrinka-Robredo took place on Armstrong — CBS Sports Network would have been the natural choice to step in during that one hour, 6 p.m. Eastern to 7 p.m. Eastern, in which none of the three U.S. Open broadcasters (ESPN, CBS, Tennis Channel) had previously committed to a time window.
Yes, with ESPN’s more expansive coverage — not to mention its identity as the primary rightsholder for the tournament — 2015 should not witness such a situation. There should be no more repeats of Wawrinka-Robredo. The instructive lesson, though, for all tennis broadcasters on American airwaves is that spillover hours need to be accounted for in such a way that there doesn’t have to be a switching of production trucks.
When CBS and ESPN team up to cover The Masters, on-air talent is shared. NBC will no longer televise U.S. Open golf, with FOX getting that event in 2015. However, when NBC and ESPN would both televise the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday, there was no production-truck delay when coverage shifted from one network to the other. When CBS and Turner Sports combine to cover the NCAA tournament, there’s no problem in carrying one game from one subregional site on one channel, and then another game from that same site on another channel.
Tennis, as shown by the Wawrinka-Robredo debacle, just doesn’t receive the kind of respect that’s accorded to other sports on network (and major cable) American television. It’s still an uphill battle, though ESPN’s more complete ownership of the U.S. Open will very likely improve that situation starting next year.
QUARTERFINALS ARE SACRED… OR AT LEAST, THEY SHOULD BE
A first- or second-round match at a major will often be a blowout. Moreover, early-round matches coexist with so many other matches in the same time slot. If a star player is being interviewed early in the first set of another second-round match at a major, it’s still not ideal, but it’s far more understandable.
When a major tennis tournament reaches the quarterfinals, however, those matches do not always have competition from other singles matches. At most, two quarterfinal matches will be played at the same time, a situation which exists at Wimbledon and Roland Garros. At the Australian and U.S. Opens, though, quarterfinals are not played simultaneously on different courts. Every singles match at those two majors exists on an island, barring a weather delay or schedule interruption. Quarterfinals are showcase events for all the obvious reasons. They are centerpieces of a major tournament, and they serve as bridges to the semifinals, which feel very much like championship-stage events.
There should be no debate about this: Quarterfinals deserve to be covered (shown) in full, without interruption or distraction. Yet, the 2014 U.S. Open marked an event in which quarterfinals were treated very casually.
The prime-time women’s quarterfinal between Caroline Wozniacki and Sara Errani was likely to produce the finalist from the bottom half of the draw, and it did exactly that. Yet, the first game of the highly significant clash was not shown by ESPN, all so it could show an interview with Roger Federer. Providing the audio of the interview represents a perfectly reasonable compromise solution if the live match is being shown on the tube. If a broadcast outlet is not comfortable with that kind of a split, though, it can show the interview later in the match if it’s a blowout (and Wozniacki did crush Errani, 6-0, 6-1). Interviews have a shelf life on the same day they’re aired. They don’t have to be shown live the way matches, especially quarterfinals, do.
What’s even more unfortunate is that Wozniacki-Errani wasn’t an isolated example of a quarterfinal being briefly ignored in favor of other items. The Belinda Bencic-Peng Shuai quarterfinal was brushed aside for a few games here and there in favor of Williams Sisters doubles action. The first three games of the third set of the men’s quarterfinal between Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori — according to most, the best match of the men’s tournament in New York — were not shown live, even though the match was tied at a set apiece through two. Had one player led two sets to love, the move would have made a lot more sense. In a tied match, though, there was no way to legitimately defend the decision.
As the Kei Nishikori-Marin Cilic men’s final reminded the global tennis community, there will come a day in several years when Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic won’t be contesting major finals. Men’s tennis will not be a sport of superstars anymore. When this situation eventually arrives — probably not in the next three to four years, but certainly in six or seven — ESPN, for all the commitment it has commendably extended to tennis in recent years, will have to showcase the sport of tennis, not superstar individuals within tennis. Growing the sport and making the sport the attraction are what tennis broadcasters need to do.
Brushing off major quarterfinals if they don’t create a lot of buzz is not the way to go about that.