ESPN and the US Open: An Imperfect Match

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On Monday, August 26, a little more than 68,000 fans entered the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to experience the US Open. Everyone else must watch on TV.

With small exceptions, ESPN controls the televising of the US Open in the United States. At a cost of $825 million over 11 years, ESPN made a major investment to show the tournament. Their execution of this opportunity is a mixed bag for tennis fans.

Deciding What to Viewers Can See

The most important broadcast decision ESPN makes centers on what to show viewers at any given time. With cameras virtually everywhere throughout the facility, the network can adjust quickly. While ESPN predominantly shows matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium and ESPN3 usually shows Louis Armstrong Stadium, the network can show many other courts as they see fit. Their most common decision: whenever possible, show Serena.

Serena Williams is the most accomplished tennis player in history. Showing her matches is both justified and caters to popular demand. Despite these truths, ESPN takes this mindset too far.

On opening Monday, 16-year-old American Zachary Svadjda won the first two sets in his match with Italy’s Paolo Lorenzi. Bidding to become the youngest winner of a men’s main draw match in many years, ESPN showed the concluding points of the second set, then moved away.

Even polished ESPN announcer Darren Cahill shared his excitement over the drama by saying he wanted to leave the match he was announcing to watch the American teen. The American junior champ eventually lost in five sets. Fans found out via scroll or announcement.

With a dramatic Day 1 upset brewing and true tennis fans tuning in, ESPN chose to show a group of commentators instead. Chris McKendry, Chris Evert, Patrick McEnroe, and guest Bethanie Mattek-Sands sat and debated… Serena’s feelings. What?

Williams’ mindset as she prepared for her match against Maria Sharapova Monday evening might be worthy of discussion, but not at that time. ESPN is paying millions to show tennis to people tuning in to watch tennis. So, show tennis.

The Post Match Interview

ESPN commentators interview the winner after almost every televised match. Live fans and the TV audience can hear questions and answers. These interviews can go one way or the other.

After winning his second round match in four sets, third seeded Roger Federer met with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert. Gilbert asked Federer about tennis. They discussed the loss of the first set in two straight matches, in-match adjustments, court conditions, and previewed Federer’s next match. Nicely done.

Contrastingly, commentator Tom Rinaldi’s interview with No.2 seed Rafael Nadal proved awkward and odd. Instead of focusing on Nadal’s play and strategy, Rinaldi tried to get the humble and obviously uncomfortable Nadal to say that a Challenger level tournament being played on another continent is named after Nadal.

Next, Rinaldi attempted to discuss Nadal’s texting with Andy Murray about Murray’s experience at the Challenger Tour event. A great player just played a match in the US Open; talk about the tennis!

Bait and Charge $$$ – ESPN+

For several years, hard core tennis enthusiasts could tune in to WatchESPN app to view matches on the outer courts of Grand Slams. Sometimes these are shown without any commentator. Doubles and lesser known singles players could be seen by true enthusiasts with an ESPN subscription and a device. Great broadcast for a niche market of loyalists.

Now, for the same service, ESPN looks to rake in a fee. Not even five dollars a month, the money is not the point. ESPN baits the viewer with offers to watch other matches, then jumps them with the need to sign up for a service that was included in ESPN subscriptions a short time ago.

The USTA’s US Open website is even in on the act. Next to any live score on the website is a red and white button offering the visitor to watch the match. Not so fast… after clicking the button, the viewer runs into an offer for a paid subscription. While they have the right to fleece their best fans, greed does not need to be taken to such an extreme.

Adjustments for Week Two

As the tournament moves into week two and the number of participants dwindles, ESPN should increase the focus on the matches. Celebrity interviews and retrospectives add flavor, but not while the best players are playing.

The best players in the world came to New York to play. The rest of the United States tunes in to see the tennis festival that is the US Open. Show it to them.

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