As tennis fans converge for the majors, four times a year we attune our bodies to some of the greatest citiscapes of the world. Melbourne. Paris for Roland Garros. London. Finally, the year’s journey ends under the lights in New York City. We neglect our friends and our families in hopes of seeing inspiration in a physical arena. Inspiration that might even be pivotal for helping us get through an often-mundane life. We set alarms and wake up in the wee hours to support and give ourselves a touch of angina until the last match ends.
One almost has to think tennis fans are some of the most loyal sports watchers out there. For 52 weeks a year we tune in, yet constantly our loyalty is tested by the powers that be, who can’t seem to figure out how to make technology fuse with a game started in a king’s court. This leaves us held hostage by Sinclair Media’s Tennis Channel.
In America, we have two networks that mainly show Grand Slam tennis. There’s ESPN and Tennis Channel. ESPN has been carrying some form of tennis in the U.S. since 1979. ESPN is not perfect, but it’s a wonderful hub for the other three majors because it is widely available in most cable packages, has multiple channels, and a complementary streaming service that is offered at no extra charge for now. The network had the rights to televise all four majors for a few years before it let Roland Garros go due to not seeing it as valuable compared to the other majors it produced.
Tennis Channel, seeing an opportunity, won the rights bid and is now the main channel for the French Open in America. NBC steals some star coverage on the weekends but is now mostly a reminder of the past, when tennis was more frequently shown on network television.
Obtaining the French Open has been wonderful for Tennis Channel. It allows the channel to be relevant during majors instead of showing tennis classic reruns or old tournaments and has allowed them to expand their business model. In recent years, Tennis Channel has become a home for more women’s matches and college events. Even the challenger tour and lower-tier WTA events are now getting quality airtime. TC has added a subscription service that is similar to ESPN’s WatchESPN (or the newer version, ESPN plus), and it houses original content, recent matches, and some archival footage. It’s a decent supplement to tennis watching on TV if Tennis Channel is not available in your local area. It is vital if those people want to watch Roland Garros in their area.
While the subscription is cheaper than offerings for the ATP and WTA Tours at $99, Tennis Channel removed the option to purchase only a TC Plus subscription for the a month around the Parisian major tournament. Now one is locked in for the year after purchase. That means folks who can get Tennis Channel in their area are paying their cable provider and Tennis Channel separately if they want to see the other courts besides the two biggest show courts. This is why I take great grievance into the scamming Tennis Channel has done in order to obtain Tennis Channel Plus subscriptions.
During the first week, most matches that are riveting are not on the main show courts. The biggest courts are reserved for the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena, home-nation French favorites, and other top seeds, generally in that order of priority. For the top players, upsets are rare. Statistics are frequently mentioned that show how little the Big 3 and Serena lose in the first week. Tennis Channel deliberately showed five big-name matches per day for the opening weekend (Sunday and Memorial Day, May 26 and 27) while there were other competitive matches TC could have been switched to.
While I don’t have an inside scoop with Tennis Channel executives, it seemed pretty clear what their intentions were.
Often the commentary did not even mention any happenings outside the TV courts. As the tournament has gone on, TC is now becoming more liberal in switching between less competitive matches for others as the draw dwindles. It is unrealistic to expect Tennis Channel TV coverage to cover the 80 or so matches available on the opening weekend, but it’s not growing the game at all by sticking with matches die-hard fans don’t want to see.
Personally, I always advocate for fans to get a live experience whenever they can. Seeing these athletes up close, one can truly see the effort they produce to win a match and the slightly innocuous routines it takes to be ready for their moment in the sun. Realistically, though, tournaments and travel are expensive. Or, you live in an area that is not conducive to tennis. (I feel your pain, friends in Siberia.) Maybe you live in a country where tennis events have a rich history, such as the United States, but it is still tough to attend events.
Tennis on TV is slowly being sorted out, but with the boom of this prolific era moving toward its sunset, will tennis still be worth the trouble?