Tennis, everyone? Future's not as fuzzy

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Tennis Channel president Ken Solomon was sitting in his office on the grounds of the French Open in Paris six weeks ago when, rifling through some press coverage of the network, he proudly showed a blurb from a story that proclaimed the net "the future of television."

When it comes to tennis, the future is heavily on the minds of television execs these days. It's not a stretch to say that televised tennis is at its most critical point in decades. During the past 18 months, a number of new rights deals have rezoned the landscape. Digital platforms are providing new content and fan opportunities (though the monetization prospects are less clear). And for the first time in years, the men's game finally is generating some top-tier rivalries — and rivalries always are a ratings savior.

As the sport's banner weekend, the Wimbledon finals, begins, the question hangs in the air like a high baseline lob: Will all these changes return tennis to widespread popularity — or cement its status as a niche sport whose main appeal lies only with its high-income demos?

Like all sports, televised tennis has seen ratings dip during the past decade as entertainment choices multiply. The sport also has faced a tough era on the men's side of the game, enduring first a period of parity and then of dominance by Roger Federer, welcome developments for hard-core fans but a tougher sell to the casual viewer.

Still, there are more programming hours today than ever. Some of that charge is being led by the Tennis Channel. The net now has rights to broadcast matches at the French Open, to highlights and other packages at Wimbledon and, starting in 2009, to matches at the U.S. Open. Under former Universal Television executive Solomon, the network is now in 25 million homes, an increase of about 800% over where it started five years ago.

ESPN also has offered an unexpected boost. The net was close to reducing its investment in all things rackets but jumped back in last year, buying back a piece of the French Open rights that the Tennis Channel had just acquired. ESPN senior vp Len DeLuca said that the net now wants tennis majors to be a part of its strategy of showing banner international events — the kind that it has tirelessly promoted – like last month's UEFA Euro Cup. (USA Network, meanwhile, recently decided to end its commitment to the U.S. Open.)

Some of the new energy couldn't come at a better time. During the past five years, ratings have held relatively flat; household ratings for the 25 hours of Wimbledon NBC aired last year averaged a 1.8, off just slightly from the 2.1 five years ago. The numbers indicate that the serious fan is there but cry out for an expansion to more casual viewers.

Some elements, certainly, are proven viewership boosters — the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) and longstanding rivalries, to name two. While the appeal of tennis to so many fans is the continuing emergence of new players, it's the long-term rivalries — as seen in the golden era of Connors-McEnroe in the 1980s or complementary styles of the Sampras-Agassi duels of the late '90s and early '00s — that drive mainstream success. "We don't root, but we do have facts," DeLuca says.

Those facts are starting to tilt in the networks' direction, as NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer notes. Federer and Rafael Nadal have played three straight French Open finals and, if form holds, will play a third straight Wimbledon final Sunday, with this year posing the greatest possibility for Nadal to dethrone the five-time champion.

Meanwhile, the Williams sisters could be poised to play their third-ever final against each other at the All England Club. After years of a top-heavy field, the women's game is evolving into what executives hope will be the best of all possible worlds: both Williams sisters in the mix but a growing number of younger — and telegenic — stars from Serbia and Russia who are desperately needed as Venus and Serena get closer to the tennis dotage of 30.

But even rivalry-fueled ratings boosts, like ABC's recently ended Lakers-Celtics series, may also be a case of relative gain: better than the lows of the past few years but nowhere near the highs of 10 or 20 years ago. That's why for many executives — and the press coverage heralding Tennis Channel as the future of television — the real upside lies online. Just as cable during the last decade began opening up more programming hours than the nets ever could, execs hope that online offers more programming opportunities than the cable nets.

And tennis, more than most sports, lends itself to digital distribution. As CBS has done with March Madness on Demand, the Tennis Channel and ESPN 360 have begun using digital media to stream matches — ad-driven, for the moment — in the early days of a Slam, when a linear net can't show the 10 or 12 matches taking place simultaneously. "We're going to continue to see an evolution of how people consume the content," said Solomon, who touts his net's 44% traffic increase for the 2008 French Open.

Still, even with new platforms and the choicest rivalries, some executives urge realism about the ability to grow the sport.

"For the moment we're in a good place," NBC's Schanzer said. "But it's not going to be a quantum leap. What we can hope for is stabilization and then incremental improvement."
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