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ESPN hopes to have John McEnroe calling the Wimbledon finals when the cable sports giant adds championship coverage of the tennis world’s marquee event next year.
“We’ve expressed to [McEnroe] that we would love to expand our relationship with him,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vp of content.
ESPN just closed a comprehensive 12-year Wimbledon rights package for live coverage of all matches — including the men’s and women’s finals — beginning with next year’s tournament.
The network has had a relationship with Wimbledon’s All England Club for nine years, airing the early rounds on ESPN2 plus one semifinal of the men’s and women’s matches. But NBC Sports has had the finals locked up for 43 years. And while McEnroe provides analysis for ESPN on the U.S. Open, he’s been NBC Sports’ foremost tennis personality for Wimbledon. But sources say that McEnroe’s deal with NBC Sports is non-exclusive so he would presumably be free to follow the Wimbledon finals to ESPN.
Skipper’s comments came during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday to announce the deal, which is estimated at $480 million and includes multiplatform rights that will make matches available on ESPN3.com and the Watch ESPN mobile app. There will also be a three-hour recap/coming-up special on ABC during the so-called middle Sunday of the tournament. And the men’s and women’s finals will also re-air on tape delay on ABC.
ESPN has added some new tennis correspondents to its ranks including former champion Chris Evert last June. And while Skipper said he’s very happy with ESPN’s current on-air tennis team (he called Evert “spectacular”), having McEnroe would certainly bring gravitas to ESPN’s Wimbledon coverage.
“We think John is very strong,” added Skipper. “And we’ll continue to talk to him. But I’m not announcing anything.”
A representative for McEnroe did not return an email seeking comment.
Beyond the personalities calling the action from center court, All England Club chief executive Ian Ritchie said that uniting coverage on one network was a priority.
“We definitely felt that we wanted to bring it together into one arena,” said Ritchie. “If you have two separate organizations telling the story inevitably there is a danger of [viewers] being confused. You want to bring some consistency to it. You want to bring a combined and coherent promotional package.”
“A coherent single partnership,” he added, “was one of our objectives right from the start.”
Cable rights for Wimbledon – which includes ESPN and Tennis Channel – are not up until next year. Ritchie said the Club is still in discussions with Tennis Channel. NBC Sports’ bid to keep Wimbledon included live tournament coverage on Versus with live coverage beginning in 2014.
NBC Sports has been criticized for airing the finals on tape delay. And U.S. television ratings for Wimbledon have trended down in the years since Serena and Venus Williams dominated Grand Slam tournaments. Meanwhile an American man hasn’t made an appearance in the finals since Andy Roddick was defeated by Roger Federer in 2009.
Last Saturday’s women’s final averaged a 1.8 household rating in Nielsen’s metered markets, while the men’s final on Sunday averaged a 2.1 household rating. That was up slightly from last year’s 1.9 rating, but down considerably compared to 2009 when the Roddick-Federer matchup pulled in a 4.3 rating.
However, Skipper and Ritchie both stressed the importance of the Wimbledon audience in aggregate across multiple platforms.
“We are interested in the totality of the audience,” said Skipper. “We are much more interested in what we can aggregate around a thousand hours and ultimately that’s what advertisers care about and that’s what rights holders care about. It’s becoming a little anachronistic to look at just the three-hour television audience.”
But while consumers’ viewing habits are changing, the majority of advertising revenue still comes from linear television.
“We’re pretty confident that more people will watch the final next year, whether more people will watch it next year on television I’m less confident of,” said Skipper. “And it doesn’t matter to me.”
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