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A Solid Net Game

The U.S. Open tennis tournament, beginning this week and running through Sept. 10, is wildly unpredictable. There have been seven different men's U.S. Open champions in the past 10 years and eight women's champs.

For upmarket advertisers, the Open tells a quality-over-quantity story. Despite only modest viewership, it delivers elusive affluent male viewers the way few other venues can. For USA, which carries most of the daily daytime and the early rounds, and CBS, which mainly airs the weekend matchups and the finals, the Open is steady but not growing.

Ratings for the finals are unpredictable. Last year's final between Andre Agassi and Roger Federer earned a 4.8 Nielsen rating. That's not quite twice the audience from the year before but way down from 2002, when the classic match up pitted Agassi and Pete Sampras, which scored a 6.2. (The women's final that year drew a 5.2, thanks to sisters Venus and Serena Williams, but has since dipped to about half that level.)

“Sales are on pace with past years,” says Brian Walker, director of communications for NBC Universal Sports, which owns USA.

That's despite the fact that, this year, there are plenty of possible storylines. For one, it is Agassi's final Open. Then there's the possible resurrection of Andy Roddick and the burgeoning rivalry between Federer and Rafael Nadal. For tennis fans, it could be fun, but Madison Avenue is not that impressed.

“CPMs are up maybe 3%-5%,” says Jon Hickey, director of sports and entertainment marketing for Mullen, an agency that reps sponsors Mass Mutual and Olympus.

John Mansell, senior analyst for Kagan Research, says the tournament's 30-second spots remain in the same ballpark each year and it “holds steady in terms of revenue,” bringing in about $62 million last year.

Still, there is another way to look at the idea of holding steady, acknowledges John Bogusz, executive VP of sports sales for CBS. “We're basically flat.”

In 2003, CBS renewed its contract with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), which runs the Open, through 2008, reportedly for $153.7 million.

That means CBS is paying slightly less than its previous contract, but it's giving USTA time to sell commercials and more network promotion.

The organization and the networks obviously would like to expand the fan base.

One problem, says Arlen Kantarian, USTA chief executive for professional tennis, is that separate organizations govern the men's and women's games and different boards run tournaments here and abroad.

Tennis Gets a “Regular Season”

But all are pulling together on the U.S. Open Series that runs on ESPN2. Now finishing its third year, it has created a sort of “regular season” out of 10 tournaments leading to the Open.

Kantarian, who once worked for the NFL, believes that's key to success even for individual sports. (The Nextel Cup has proved a hit for NASCAR, after all.)

“We have three governing bodies, four networks, 10 tournament owners and five major sponsors all under one roof,” he says.

The extra exposure with 116 live hours of Open Series tennis is great for the game and for letting viewers learn more about the players and historic match-ups. “This is like a 116-hour infomercial for the Open,” says Kantarian.

Long View

While CBS' Bogusz says the Series boosts the USTA more than his network, he concedes it does “help provide a more consistent message.”

“The Series definitely helps in the long run,” says Steve Sternberg, executive VP, director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, the television marketing and strategy company. This year, the USTA has also, for the first time, invested in a $5 million marketing campaign for the Series and the Open, while the 10 tournaments individually also promote the series as a whole in a unified effort billed as “The Greatest Road Trip in Sports.”

Perhaps more important is the extent of the involvement of the major sponsors. Chase, Mass Mutual, Nike, American Express and Heineken are not only making a “significant media commitment to our TV partners,” Kantarian says, “they're also doing tennis-themed creative in their TV ads, which helps promote the sport.”

Will all of that add up to more viewers? Possibly. But although more is better, advertisers, which covet the upscale tennis crowd, may be satisfied because they're getting a blue-ribbon audience.

“You can't predict who'll be in the finals,” says Sternberg, “but advertisers know the general range of the tournament and that it's a good environment.”