ESPN today kicks off what it is calling “first ball to last ball” coverage of the 50th U.S. Open and the 41st edition held in the major tennis tournament’s Queens home, which just wrapped up five years of major renovations.
The Disney-owned network hopes that the $600 million in enhancements to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the return of the “Big Four” men’s players will propel ratings to last year’s healthy levels. (Injuries have kept Rafael Nadal, last year’s Open champ, from being in the same tournament as Roger Federer, Novac Djokovic and Andy Murray since June 2017.) Last year, viewership surged 36% from 2016 for the all-American women’s final, which saw then-unknown Sloane Stephens become champion. This year, the spotlight will also be on Serena Williams, a six-time Open champion who enters as the No. 17 seed after having a baby and missing last year’s Open.
This anniversary Open marks the fourth year ESPN has held exclusive rights, following a six-year span when it shared the rights with CBS. In 2014, the network signed an 11-year deal with the U.S. Tennis Association at a reported $70 million a year.
That deal was struck at the tail end of the age when ESPN was a virtually unchallenged sports-media behemoth. While still dominant, it faces more competition than ever and its traditional video subscriber numbers have waned as more viewers look to cut or shave the cord. The Open is one of the first marquee events the network has aired since launching its response to the new streaming-obsessed climate: subscription platform ESPN+, which will carry several matches and other Open programming. The $5-a-month, direct-to-consumer service is being closely tracked by Disney investors and industry rivals as the company prepares to roll out a Disney-branded streaming app in late 2019.
From a TV standpoint, the network is eager to embrace what the renovations in Queens have finally made possible: consecutive nights of guaranteed top-tier action and the end of ratings-killing rain delays. From 2008 to 2012, the men’s final was pushed back from Sunday to Monday due to rain, and that ratings-destroying fate also befell the 2015 final. As other majors have added retractable roofs, the U.S. Tennis Association felt it had no choice but to act.
“Having two stadiums that you know you can count on to sort of have continuing tennis, it’s going to be something that is going to make I believe everyone around the sport feel a whole lot better about things,” said John McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and former Open champion, during a pre-tournament media conference call. “It’s obviously a big two weeks for New York, for tennis. Goes without saying. But even for the city, the excitement level is ramped up. I think it will be even more so.”
Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother and also an ESPN analyst, credited the USTA for improving the fan experience. While they added roofs “because of pressure, let’s be honest, for financial reasons from the sponsors, from the fans, from television,” the organization also “got the balance pretty good in looking at the overall plan.”
The tournament annually falls at a moment when the entertainment business is emerging from its summer torpor, making it not only a tough ticket in New York but also a challenge for industry fans to follow from their various out-of-town vantage points. The film business is in active festival mode, with Venice, Telluride and Toronto all falling during the Open. The broadcast TV sector, meanwhile, is readying its mid-September blitz of new prime-time fall shows.
For anyone able to make it to New York, though, the atmosphere is unlike that of other sporting events — even other tennis majors like Wimbledon or the French Open. Especially in recent years, with players increasingly becoming brand ambassadors and celebrities in their own right, the city has hosted a raft of viewing parties, pre-tournament cocktail receptions and fan celebrations.
“It’s New York, and it’s a show,” said Chrissie Evert, another former champion now in the broadcast booth. “Every Grand Slam has its charm, and every Grand Slam has its niche. In New York, the U.S. Open, the last one of the year, it’s showbiz. It’s a spectacle. It’s an event, and it’s always exciting. Nighttime is more exciting in a U.S. Open than any other Grand Slam. Everybody gets dressed up — at ESPN we feel it.”