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For ESPN, Having It All at the U.S. Open Had Its Ups and Downs

Serena Williams' failure to win the Grand Slam at the U.S. Open shocked not just tennis fans, but also everyone on the ESPN team on-site in Flushing, N.Y., and at HQ in Bristol, Conn. Yet the TV ratings and digital engagement picture shows that the disappointment was limited, and the pluses largely outweighed the minuses.

Taking over coverage of the men’s and women’s singles semifinals and finals as well as most Labor Day weekend coverage from CBS (whose 47-year run with the Open ended last year) enabled ESPN to integrate all of the event’s competition and story lines seamlessly for 14 days across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3 and other platforms as well as within shows including SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption.

ESPN’s new start-to-finish exclusivity of U.S. Open coverage (which it already enjoys at Wimbledon and the Australian Open) afforded the media giant opportunities to engage a broader audience of sports fans and offer more continuity to advertisers and other partners. The exclusivity is part of ESPN’s new 11-year, $825-million deal with the U.S. Tennis Association.

A major bright spot for ESPN was the dramatic Sept. 8 quarterfinal showdown in primetime between Serena and her sister Venus, which earned a 4.8 rating, peaking at 5.6 from 10 to 10:15 p.m. The rating was the second-best ever for ESPN with tennis after the 2012 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

Serena-Venus also set records for the WatchESPN app, with 612,000 users watching 44.8 million minutes of tennis streaming. Tweets about the sisters during the match peaked at more than 5,000 per minute for Serena and 3,000 for Venus.

Serena, having won tennis' first three major events this year, was on a quest to win the Open and become the first player to take the sport's four Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year since 1988. Williams’ popularity on social media (where some fans attributed her catastrophic semifinal loss to unheralded Italian Roberta Vinci to her pal Drake’s presence at the match) certainly helped drive viewership and traffic for ESPN throughout the Open fortnight. ESPN talent also had a hand in generating social media chatter: During the tournament’s first week, analyst John McEnroe stirred up posters with his negative on-air comments about the on-court antics (including catnaps between games) of talented but temperamental Australian phenom Nick Kyrgios.

ESPN also served up some engaging new production bells and whistles, including coverage from 11 courts (up from seven last year); freeD, a replay system that freezes the action and then turns to show it from different angles; an improved RailCam, a ground-level robotic camera at one end of the Arthur Ashe Stadium court that shows shots from the player’s point of view; a roving camera atop a 150-ft.-high crane that offered sweeping views of fans swarming in and out of Ashe and of the stadium’s half-finished retractable roof; and a cozy new outdoor set that hosted player interviews adjacent to their practice courts.

Williams’ defeat in the semis dealt ESPN a weak hand for the women’s final on Saturday afternoon between Vinci and her fellow Italian, longtime friend (and also relative unknown) Flavia Pennetta. The match earned only a 1.5 overnight rating, down 63% from Serena vs. Caroline Wozniacki last year on CBS (with an NFL lead-in). But the highly entertaining matchup had a stirring, surprising conclusion when the victorious Pennetta, 33, announced her impending retirement from the sport during an on-court interview with ESPN’s Robin Roberts. (In another tweet-generating moment for ESPN earlier in the tournament, Pennetta was buzzed by a wayward drone while playing a match in Louis Armstrong Stadium.)

ESPN fared a bit better with the men’s final on Sunday between Federer and winner Novak Djokovic, which was pushed into primetime following a three-hour rain delay from its scheduled 4 p.m. start. The network's broadcast team (three announcers in the booth, four more on the ground) valiantly vamped as the drizzle dragged on. Pushing back from afternoon to primetime, typically a ratings booster, turned into a serious hit for ESPN when the tennis match aired opposite the season premiere of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, featuring two of the NFL’s most popular teams, the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. Final score in the Nielsen overnight household ratings: football 16.7, tennis 2.4.