ESPN Aces Exclusive U.S. Open Tennis Rights

After adding exclusive coverage of Wimbledon to its portfolio with last year’s fortnight, ESPN has aced a similar long-term deal for the U.S. Open tennis championships, starting in 2015.

ESPN has reached an agreement with the United States Tennis Association on an 11-year pact that gives its North and South American rights from the initial serve to championship point at the U.S. Open. Under its current deal that expires in 2014, ESPN has been televising about 100 hours annually from the Grand Slam event since 2009. That total will grow to around 130 with the new pact.

The deal results in another marquee sports property migrating to cable from broadcast as it will end CBS’s relationship with the Flushing Meadows event that dates to 1968. CBS, which will continue to cover the event through 2014, showcases the tournament on Labor Day weekend and the semifinal and final matches. ESPN will have the rights to the finals of three of the four tennis majors, excluding the French Open, which airs on NBC.

Sources peg the agreement's annual value at as much as $75 million, or some $825 million over its term. That’s almost double the current combined outlay under which CBS and ESPN are paying $20 million apiece for Open rights. ESPN has offset some of those costs through a sublicensing deal with Tennis Channel, which airs some 70 live hours from the Open, as part of 250 overall with encore programming.

ESPN will add day-long coverage of the tourney’s "middle" weekend, plus both the men’s and women’s semifinals and finals, which have aired on CBS.The new U.S. Open schedule, previously announced to start in 2015, will place the women’s final on Saturday and the men’s on Sunday, creating new primetime telecasts of the women’s semifinals on the second Thursday and the men’s semifinals the following day.

In addition to ESPN and ESPN2, all telecasts will be available on WatchESPN.  In an expansion of offerings, over the term of the agreement ESPN will make every match on all 17 tournament courts available on ESPN3, versus the six "TV courts" that have been in play.  Also, ESPN3 will begin each day’s coverage the first Monday – Friday mornings with two hours at 11 a.m. (ET), while SportsCenter on ESPN will have the right to live cut-ins.  ESPN3 is available via WatchESPN for fans who receive ESPN’s linear networks as part of their video subscription via Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Verizon FiOS TV, Comcast Xfinity TV, Midcontinent Communications, Cablevision, Cox, Charter or AT&T U-verse.

Last year, CBS averaged a 1.4 U.S. rating and a 4 share over its 37 hours of Open coverage, its lowest ever mark with the tournament. The last time CBS, hampered by inclement weather that has pushed the men’s final to Monday from its 4 p.m. window on Sunday for five years running, averaged better than a 2.0 rating was with the 2006 event. The men’s final is now scheduled to air on Monday night during the final two years of the CBS deal, putting it up against ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Should the tournament be delayed in the years to come, it would result in ESPN properties televising the men's final against MNF.

CBS Sports, pointing to the profitability of the rest of its rights roster, issued the following statement about the Open: “We are proud of our long-term association with the USTA and wish them well.  Looking ahead, we have profitable partnerships with all of our key sports franchises locked up for many, many years to come, including the NFL, NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, SEC Football, PGA Tour and the PGA Championship.  And in the meantime, we look forward to two more years of tennis on CBS."

It was unclear at press time what the ESPN’s U.S. Open deal means for Tennis Channel. The USTA has an ownership stake in the independent network, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on May 15. As mentioned under the current cable deal, Tennis Channel sublicenses U.S. Open cable rights from ESPN.

ESPN president John Skipper, during the media call announcing the new rights deal, said he has not yet had "a chance to talk to [Tennis Channel chairman and CEO] Ken Solomon yet. We have a many-year relationship [with the network] and a history of looking at whether there's mutual benefit to sublicense back and forth. We expect to have a conversation."

Indeed, the parties are in the sixth year of a TV alliance for the tennis season’s first two majors – ESPN is the primary rights-holder and takes the production lead with the Australian Open from Melbourne, while the independent network sets the play in Paris with the French Open, which this year begins on May 26.

However, when ESPN wrested the U.S. rights to Wimbledon from NBC, the worldwide leader maintained control of all of the live match action from the All-England Club. Tennis, through its own 12-year pact, has its presence at the prestigious grass court tournament, via Wimbledon Primetime, which provides highlights, interviews and match encores.