Australian Open

Tough truths, difficult Qs, and real solutions to the ESPN problem in U.S. tennis coverage

This is a column about American tennis coverage and the American media ecosystem as it relates to sports coverage, tennis coverage, and the use/distribution/visibility of various platforms. Therefore, Europeans and South Americans and Australians might not feel they have a place at the table, but maybe some of the dynamics here will resonate and will contain a measure of meaning and relevance in your respective corners of the world. At any rate, we have to have a conversation about this issue. American fans — and our American readers and podcast listeners — deserve it.

We don’t have to discuss the actual source of this column: ESPN’s decision to not show night sessions on TV before the semifinals at the Australian Open is something the network did last year (partly if not fully; it might have shown the quarterfinals, but it didn’t show Week 1 night-session matches in 2022).

When I tweeted about this, I was met with a lot of agreement about how bad it was, but there were some dissenting voices. One commentator said this is how the industry works and ESPN is just looking after its bottom line. Another person said that ESPN is not at fault for this. The fault lies with Tennis Australia for drawing up a bad contract and for taking ESPN’s money without an assurance or guarantee that ESPN would televise ALL night sessions of the tournament. Another person said that the difference between TV and streaming is not that big; one can simply hook up a computer to a TV and have matches visible and accessible on a television screen.

Those comments offer me a chance to unpack some views and provide actual solutions to this larger problem.

First off, the comment that Tennis Australia is more at fault than ESPN is accurate and a well-made point. Yes. That’s true. If we are to assign levels or degrees of blame, Tennis Australia is most responsible for this situation. It did not have to take ESPN’s money, but it did, all without locking in a commitment from the television side. It only received commitments from ESPN for live streaming. Let’s be clear: The organizers of the four majors, the French Tennis Federation being another example (taking NBC’s money for decades while allowing NBC to tape-delay the Roland Garros semifinals), have to insist in negotiations that the rights-holder for their tournament will show full days of matches on television, not just on streaming. (We don’t have that problem with Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, but it had been an issue at RG and it is currently an issue for American tennis fans with Tennis Australia.)

On the comment that one can simply hook up a computer to a television and have a TV-watching experience through the outlet provided by live streaming: For tech-savvy and well-monied/educated people, it isn’t that much of a problem. However, what if you can’t afford a computer? What if you can’t afford having multiple televisions in your house, or multiple TVs and computers? Chances are that if you can connect a computer to a TV in a home entertainment setup, you probably have enough disposable income to have another TV in a separate room of your house which is not connected to a computer, and that you have a separate computer you can use for internet surfing, word processing, and other activities all while you watch a streamed sporting event via your other computer.

It isn’t that hard to link your computer with your TV screen … if you have the time and the knowledge and the money.

Not everyone does, though. A family of four living near the poverty line with tons of bills and expenses, and jobs which either don’t have benefits or carry a higher wage, can’t afford to use its one or two computers (assuming it has enough to afford one computer, but not three or four) for a home entertainment setup. The kids either need to do their homework on the computer or the adults need to carry out various transactions (or look up where to find important services) on the computer.

Comfortable middle-class households can do this. People who aren’t comfortable — there are tens of millions of people living paycheck to paycheck in America — can’t generally do this.

This leads to the larger point that when broadcasters such as ESPN have the rights to big sporting events, there should be a moral obligation to make the events reasonably accessible. Sports are part of culture and, as such, matter a lot in people’s lives. Yes, NFL football is a much bigger cultural force than tennis, but when we talk about making tennis (or other niche sports) accessible to the wider population, so that young people will be interested in tennis and the sport has a chance to grow in non-affluent households (remember the Williams Sisters and their rough-and-tumble roots in Compton, California), this kind of thing matters a lot. It’s important that a family in a lower-middle class background can simply turn on the TV instead of having to use a computer to hook up the TV to a streaming service and do all that homework. People who live closer to the poverty line have to work really hard to secure various essential needs and services all the time. Looking for those services becomes an extra/half “unpaid” job.

Television networks and cable companies should not make life more difficult — more like a job — for people without ample disposable income. Broadcasts of major sporting events should be as accessible as possible, not requiring people who are already paying for a cable or satellite package to have to jump through more hoops or make more separate, added payments for separate, carved-out services. This is unnecessary and burdensome complexity for people without much disposable income or the class status attached to an easier, more manageable life. Universal access to basic services should — as a point of ethics and morality — extend to things such as making it easy to watch the Australian Open on television.

Keep in mind — as American citizens — that there used to be a time when all major sporting events were on network television. Recent decades have witnessed ESPN and TNT/TBS (Turner Broadcasting) getting their feet inside the door for signature sporting events such as the College Football Playoff and the NCAA Basketball Final Four. If you’re poor enough that you can’t even afford cable, this is a problem. It’s bad enough that cable has encroached upon territory which used to be the domain of over-the-air broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX). Making this reality even worse, with TV ceding ground to live streaming, represents a further erosion of accessibility and democratization of these sporting events, which are big cultural moments for a lot of people around the country and around the world. There is an element of public service and public trust here. Making it harder for all of a country’s citizens to access big sporting events is a form of cultural division and class warfare. It’s not as significant as class warfare in different and more monstrous forms (such as preventing people from having guaranteed health care regardless of income, or not raising the federal minimum wage in over a decade), but it IS still class warfare.

No one should accept or approve of this.

Here’s the biggest point, though: The idea that ESPN is just trying to make a buck and do good business is a flawed and bad idea. The notion that the cable networks simply HAVE to funnel their product through streaming — the implication being that if they don’t, they’re losing money — is a cop-out. It’s lazy. It presumes there’s simply no other way for ESPN or other entities to make money other than to take this approach. Come on.

There is always an opportunity for any company to improve its product. ESPN could create fresh, original, interesting tennis programming.

Tennis fans (those with money and time and passion, the people who can in fact hook up their computer to a TV for live streaming) would greatly enjoy a one-hour weekly tennis show with Darren Cahill and Jason Goodall (maybe Brad Gilbert, too).

Tennis fans would greatly enjoy a show on tennis analytics, and the dozens of statistics one can pull from tennis matches which don’t get currently covered or mentioned on the air. Imagine Cahill and Goodall or Gilbert geeking out about revolutions per minute on backhands and forehands, or on forced errors versus unforced errors. There are so many interesting analytical angles to explore in tennis which — on American TV — have gone unexplored for decades. There is a vast landscape of open terrain waiting to be claimed, with original analysis and commentary on a scale we have never seen before.

ESPN could choose to invest in tennis coverage in this way, much as NBC decided to finally invest in Premier League soccer coverage.

There was a time when soccer was as marginalized in the American media ecosystem as tennis is today. Soccer took off and became a sensation, a reliable ratings generator, for NBC Sports. The World Cup is very big business for Fox Sports. Soccer commodities on American TV represent prized possessions and important investments.

There’s no reason tennis can’t significantly grow in value. No, it won’t match the status soccer has attained in the American marketplace, but it certainly CAN grow on a smaller scale and deliver value to ESPN … if ESPN will actually choose to invest in its product.

If ESPN wanted to invest in tennis programming, everything could change: That one-hour Cahill-Goodall show, or a half-hour show on analytics, or a half-hour show on tennis betting (which the public would also be very interested in and could generate fresh attention from consumers hungry for betting content), could all become valuable elements of a live-streaming package of tennis-specific niche content a lot of people would pay for. Growing revenue streams through original programming on the live streaming side would then make it easier for ESPN to put the full Australian Open on TV.

We can debate which specific shows or concepts might work best for live streaming, but the larger, basic point is clear: ESPN could do all sorts of things to give tennis diehards — true tennis junkies — more streaming content on ESPN Plus, while the general population can access the full Australian Open on TV.

Niche content for streaming, basic content for live TV. Serve the larger public by not forcing people to search for a streaming option, but serve the niche (affluent, upscale) audience with original new offerings it will gladly pay money for.

We often hear or see people saying “Take my money!” when a company puts out a product they really love. It’s not as though customers are reticent to pay money as a default position. Tennis fans (myself included) would just like tennis tournaments to be covered in full on television, because we already pay a lot to get Tennis Channel on a more expensive DirecTV or cable tier. Offering added matches on streaming is not an added product; it’s an added payment for the same product (covering a tennis tournament).

If, on the other hand, original shows and original programming were on a streaming service, as a supplement and complement to the basics (showing a damn tennis tournament on live TV), that would truly represent an ADDED, SEPARATE product, something worth paying for.

Phrased differently: Don’t take something basic, put it on different platforms, and call it a new or separate product consumers have to make a second, separate payment for.

Do one basic thing for the full American public. Offer the niche, original content for streaming and the diehards. Make life convenient for everyone, and give your most passionate fans the extras they hunger for.

We can satisfy various constituencies and make more money. We don’t have to insist there’s only one way to do good business.

That is my message to ESPN.

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