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ESPN at Wimbledon, Week Two: Lots Of Excellence, One Error

The story of ESPN’s performance in week one at Wimbledon is archived here. Why was this account so lengthy? Very simply, ESPN (and at times, ESPNEWS) covered Wimbledon with only one television channel at one time.

ESPN covered tennis until the early World Cup match came on, and ESPNEWS then filled in. However, the WorldWide Leader didn’t (and doesn’t) devote two channels to the first week. Hence, one channel was left with the large responsiblity of having to cover the whole tournament. Almost inevitably, a one-channel setup for the crowded first week of a major tennis tournament simply couldn’t cover every developing story and plot twist.

In week two of Wimbledon, however, ESPN gets it right as a matter of practice, with 2014 being no exception. ESPN brings aboard ESPN2 for the second week of Wimbledon, meaning that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week, two channels cover matches on two or more courts.

This year, the reality of a backlogged schedule due to rain caused matches to be played on non-show courts on Tuesday. Normally, the second Monday of Wimbledon is when ESPN and ESPN2 have to capture action on more than the two main show courts (Centre Court and No. 1 Court), but that “scramble format” had to extend to Tuesday this year. On Wednesday, though, ESPN and ESPN2 were able to go to a two-court format. On Centre Court and No. 1 Court, Wimbledon scheduled a women’s quarterfinal (moved back one day by rain), followed by two men’s quarterfinals.

Here’s the essential insight to make: Once Tuesday’s play ended, ESPN never again had to worry about failing to cover a singles match. For this reason, the documentation format used in Attacking The Net’s week-one review of Wimbledon is not needed for week two.

It’s really rather simple: When a television network — especially the main rightsholder — devotes two live, simultaneous channels to a major tennis tournament, that tournament can be covered adequately. With only one channel — as was seen in the first week of Wimbledon — a tennis tournament’s scope exceeds what one production truck can realistically cover. ESPN’s two-channel format during the second week of Wimbledon alleviated so many concerns and addressed so many problems that tennis broadcasters have historically faced — in the past, yes, but also at the French and U.S. Opens, which have existed under more complicated television rights agreements.

For most of the second week of Wimbledon, then, there were no coverage-based controversies. Tennis fans might have had reason to air a few moderate grievances on Monday and early Tuesday, but once the draws began to thin out at Wimbledon, every main-stage singles match received complete and uninterrupted coverage. Hopefully, the rightsholders at the other majors will develop and refine the two-channel model in the very near future. ESPN deserves a lot of credit for making the second week of Wimbledon so enjoyable to follow, strictly in terms of being able to see all the important matches.

*

There was only one fundamental error made by ESPN throughout the second week, but it was and is the kind of error that can erase the goodwill accumulated over five days of controvery-free coverage.

On Saturday, following a lightning-quick women’s final (55 minutes), ESPN — whose tennis coverage window extended for six hours, not including a one-hour “pregame show” at 8 a.m. ET — figured to be able to show the men’s doubles final in its entirety. Moreover, the doubles final was being contested by the most popular doubles team in America, the Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike.

If that detail wasn’t enough to make tennis fans confident that the final would be televised, the Bryans were facing two other North Americans. Their opponents in the championship match were American Jack Sock and Canadian Vasek Pospisil. Unlike an all-European doubles final or a final with more obscure teams, this was a matchup made for ESPN’s American audience.

Instead, ESPN decided to put the match on its live-streaming service, ESPN3, since it serves at least 92 million homes.

This is an issue which has the appearance of being a debate and an honest conversation on the surface, but when one looks just below that surface, there’s no real debate to be had.

Streaming is becoming (and has already become) more and more of a means for fans to watch sports in the modern age. The world of the hand-held and/or mobile device has greatly expanded the reach of sports broadcasting in ways that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago. Putting events on streaming services makes quite a lot of sense.

The problem, though, is that this was not a competition between live tennis on one court and live tennis on another. ESPN’s refusal to show the men’s doubles final on live television was accompanied by a decision to show a replay of the previous day’s men’s semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov.

Had there been a player of interest to an American audience in Saturday’s mixed doubles semifinals, and ESPN aired that match while shifting the Bryans and Sock/Pospisil to ESPN3, one could have arrived at the conclusion that ESPN was dividing up live action. Most wouldn’t have agreed with the decision, of course, but the conversation would have been, at heart, reasonable.

Putting taped tennis on the tube instead of that live doubles match, however? There’s just no legitimate answer ESPN can come up with. 

What makes this painfully ironic — and a bit surprising — is that a year ago, the Bryan Brothers were viewed as such a popular television item by ESPN that their 2013 semifinal match was aired instead of an extended portion of a women’s singles semifinal (between Sabine Lisicki and Agnieszka Radwanska).  The total about-face by ESPN isn’t really the problem here — not directly. The problem is the way in which ESPN has evaluated the significance of Bryan Brothers matches compared to the other available offerings at the time.

In one year, the Bryans superseded a women’s semifinal — a match which should never take second place to doubles — only to then be relegated to streaming a year later without competition from another live match. In each year, 2013 and 2014, there was no real decision to be made. Yet, ESPN somehow felt there was a decision to be made in each case. The WWL batted 0-for-2… and upset a lot of American tennis fans in the process, for no good reason.

NBC, for all the many, many things it has done to destroy the quality of major-tournament tennis coverage, did display a regular annual commitment to doubles on the last two days of Wimbledon (with broadcast windows of at least five hours, if not six). On Saturday, ESPN — so much better than Tennis Channel and NBC on every level — shockingly fell below NBC’s standard for the final four hours of its six-hour live-tennis window.

As mentioned above, ESPN’s one unforced error in the men’s doubles match gave viewers an unpleasant opportunity — namely, an opportunity to forget all the tremendous, stellar, fabulous, wonderful, terrific, first-rate, cutting-edge, industry-leading things ESPN had done from Monday through Friday of the second week of Wimbledon. 

Why try to prop up your live-streaming service — valuable though it is — when you can air a live match (sans competition) and retain the trust you’ve built with viewers? There’s no reason this and hundreds of other tweets like it should have been typed in the wake of ESPN’s decision on Saturday. 

ESPN earned an “A” for its second-week coverage of Wimbledon… except for one move, a move that has enabled many American tennis fans to continue to think — with some justification — that the whole of tennis, especially doubles, just doesn’t get the mainstream respect it deserves. 

That’s a shame.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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