Richard Sandomir of the New York Times reports the USA Network “is expected to shed its money-losing coverage of United States Open tennis as soon as its deal ends” in 2008.
USA, which has telecast the U.S. Open since 1984, is eliminating sports from its schedule. The network allowed The Masters to leave for ESPN after declining to pay Augusta National a new rights fee over the summer, and is now focusing more on original programming.
The loss of USA Network will leave the USTA looking for a new broadcast partner. On possibility is TNT; the Turner-owned network had the cable rights to Wimbledon early in this decade and was in the running to acquire cable rights to The Masters.
More likely is ESPN. The network already has the rights to the other three Grand Slams through 2011. However, other programming commitments have deterred ESPN from making a play on the Open in the past. ESPN’s Len DeLuca:
The problem … is that the U.S. Open always occurs at a time when we are flush with college football and, depending on the weekend, the Little League World Series, the X-Games and the commencement of the NFL season, which we are heavily involved in as well. So we love the U.S. Open, we will always talk about the U.S. Open, but there are scheduling hurdles for ESPN’s present networks that are unique to that Grand Slam that are not present in the other three.
If the U.S. Open were to go to ESPN, there would be a need to split cable rights. Starting next year, ESPN and The Tennis Channel will share the cable rights for the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. An ESPN U.S. Open bid would likely include TTC in some capacity.
In February, after the announcement of an ESPN/TTC agreement to jointly broadcast the Australian and French Opens, neither ESPN Executive VP of Content John Skipper nor Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon would deny that the networks would go after U.S. Open rights. In an interview with Tennis Week, Skipper said of the U.S. Open: “It is a spectacular event. It is an event we love, but those guys [the USTA]have existing agreements.”
In the same Tennis Week story, writer “the level of interactivity between the USTA, ESPN and TTC … has now reached a level where it appears almost a foregone conclusion that a U.S. Open deal will eventually be done.”
If ESPN and The Tennis Channel take over the rights for the U.S. Open, tennis will have its most consistent television schedule. All four Grand Slams, and several other lower-tier events, will air on ESPN/TTC with CBS or NBC airing weekend coverage. A consistent television schedule can sometimes lead to at least a slight jump in television ratings, which might soften the blow of losing a cable powerhouse like USA.