ESPN close to finalizing Wimbledon deal

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Sports network would return the tournament to a live broadcast, after two years of occasionally tape-delayed matches.

Wimbledon fans will have to tune in to ESPN next year to watch the matches, thanks to a new deal that will end NBC’s 43-year association with the tournament.

Sources tell SportsBusiness Journal that ESPN is close to finalizing a deal to broadcast Wimbledon, after a week of talks in London. Fox and NBC have also been chasing a Wimbledon deal in recent months.

The All England Club, which hosts Wimbledon, reportedly will offer ESPN a full-rights package. ESPN may allow ABC to replay some previously taped programming, and plans to offer matches on its mobile application (Watch ESPN) and via broadband, said the sources. ESPN currently has the rights to early-round games up through 2013, which would be incorporated into the new deal.

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Though NBC has a four-decades relationship with the tournament, fans have criticized the network for broadcasting matches on a tape delay in recent years. Last week, it chose to show the higher-rated Today Show last Thursday and Friday, rather than broadcast semi-final matches live. NBC’s four-year Wimbledon agreement, which cost roughly $13 million per year, expired Sunday after the 2011 tournament ended.

NBC released a statement Sunday confirming the impending deal.

"We are proud of our 43-year partnership with the All England Club and while we would have liked to have continued our relationship, we were simply outbid," the NBC statement said.

For its part, ESPN may have pushed hard for the deal not only for the boon of bringing a large sporting event to cable, but also to prevent NBCUniversal’s Versus network from further encroaching on its territory.

ESPN’s Executive Vice President of Content John Skipper and its Executive Vice President of Programming John Wildhack were in London to negotiate the deal, reported the SportsBusiness Journal.

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