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Tennis On TV: 5 Persistent Flaws In The Industry

Tennis has endured some rough live TV moments on American airwaves in recent years, but those embarrassments are exceeded in severity by the more structural problems tennis faces on the tube in this country. Five lingering deficiencies – pertaining to industry realities, not individual match broadcasts – continue to prevent this sport from being presented to the public the way it ought to be.

These are far bigger issues than on-air mistakes and poor production truck decisions, precisely because they represent a larger attitude toward tennis. If these lamentable situations can somehow be addressed and corrected, tennis has a much better chance of resonating with a wider segment of the American public.

5 – LOCAL CBS AFFILIATES NOT AIRING THE U.S. OPEN MEN’S SINGLES FINAL ON MONDAYS

This problem will happily go away next year, when CBS will no longer televise any portion of the U.S. Open. Yet, it’s still worth mentioning for a few reasons: First, it has persisted over the past several years. Second, it’s something that tennis fans in certain markets will need to prepare for this September.

Here’s a bit of background: Casual sports fans who don’t pay close attention to tennis or tennis broadcasting might be surprised to realize that the past six U.S. Opens have concluded on a Monday, not the final Sunday of the two-week event. From 2008 through 2012, the Monday men’s final was the result of bad weather at the USTA National Tennis Center, which does not have a single covered stadium (but will have domed stadiums in place by 2018 if everything goes according to plan). Last year and this year, a Monday final has been built into the schedule, so that the men’s singles semifinal winners on Saturday can get a day of rest before the final. (The U.S. Open had been the one major tournament in which men’s semifinal winners did not get a day of rest before the Sunday final. That flaw has, at long last, been addressed.)

Next year, ESPN will move the men’s semifinals to Friday and the final to Sunday, but even if bad weather hits on Sunday, ESPN will still broadcast a Monday final if one occurs before a domed stadium arrives in 2018. As a result, a CBS-specific problem will cease to exist. However, tennis fans in some cities will have to put up with (and/or work around) this sad and sorry reality for one more U.S. Open.

Why have these Monday finals turned into disasters for some American tennis fans? The Monday finals have generally started at 5 p.m. Eastern, occasionally at 4 p.m. These time windows coincide with afternoon talk shows – Oprah, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and the like – that local CBS affiliates are reluctant to give up. Many CBS affiliates show tennis, but several have persistently stuck with talk shows while not working to secure an arrangement in which the men’s final can be shown on an unaffiliated or independent local network in that market.

The past six U.S. Open men’s finals have all featured highly attractive matchups. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray have all won championships over the past six years, and in only one match during that span of time (Juan Martin del Potro faced Federer in 2009) did two of those four players fail to meet. The U.S. Open is a showcase event in tennis, especially for American tennis fans that have to watch the Australian Open finals in the middle of the night, and the Roland Garros or Wimbledon finals at 9 a.m. or earlier. Three of the four golf majors are held in the United States, but only one tennis major is staged on U.S. soil. The treatment of the U.S. Open Monday final by CBS and local CBS affiliates has offered powerful confirmation of the extent to which tennis is accorded second-class status as a sports product in this country.

If you live in a market whose CBS affiliate has not shown the Monday final in the recent past, get on the horn now to make sure an alternate network is made available when the moment arrives. 

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4 – FEW PUBLICLY-LABELED “PREGAME SHOWS”

Yes, ESPN does have a 30-minute lead-in to the Australian Open men’s and women’s finals, while also having extended discussion at Wimbledon (6:30 or 7 a.m. Eastern before the show-court matches begin at 8:10 a.m. Eastern). In that sense, there is such a thing as a tennis “pre-game show.” Yet, you don’t see tennis broadcasters use the term in their coverage. This might seem like a pointless distinction, but there is something to be said about the topic and what it means for the way in which tennis is covered in America.

During tennis matches, especially early-round blowouts dished out by the Serenas and Nadals of the world, you will find it impossible to ignore the extent to which commentators talk about off-court intrigues or speculate about various other players. Tennis diehards are upset by this, while the casual sports fan probably doesn’t see anything wrong with the larger dynamic.

Golf, the other main solo-athlete sport on television, is more focused on the thought process that goes into each and every shot. Will a player use a nine-iron or a wedge? Will he go with the putter from the short rough or try to chip? Will she go for the green or try to lay up? Tennis analysis just doesn’t reach this level of granular insight — not usually, at any rate.

Andre Agassi prefers to spend his life doing philanthropic work, which is great. Yet, if Agassi had wanted to become a commentator, he might have been able to take the art of tennis analysis to a higher level. When Agassi has made guest appearances in announcing booths in recent years, he has provided a substantial degree of detail, making tennis fans wonder, “Why can’t we get that in every match?”

Why does the lack of a specific (and openly acknowledged) “pre-game show” hurt tennis in an American marketplace? Let’s continue with the Agassi example to explain the point:

Agassi, liberated by the fact that he’s not a paid commentator, was able to be himself. He didn’t have to talk about a match in a certain way. European tennis fans could tell you that when John McEnroe – very loquacious on American airwaves – works for the BBC at Wimbledon, he doesn’t talk as much as he does on American broadcasts. There is definitely a style of broadcasting which is particular to each nation or culture, and in the United States, a gab-filled style is preferred. Such an approach, by elevating the importance of “water cooler” discussions, de-emphasizes the nuances of match analysis and the layered Xs and Os of tennis competition.

Tennis should be subjected to the same detailed analysis television viewers receive in football, baseball or basketball. Greater attention to patterns and decisions, supplemented by analytics (which have immeasurably improved the way in which team sports are discussed), will make tennis far more interesting. Tennis broadcasts show signs of improvement, but they don’t always treat viewers as adults.

Here’s the essential aspect of pre-game shows: They represent the portion of a network’s tennis coverage in which all the gab-heavy dimensions of a broadcast can be shared with the audience. If networks devote 30 minutes to yakking before beginning their coverage of live tennis on a given day, they can then devote live in-match commentary to… matches. What a concept, right?

The set-aside use of a specifically labeled or identified “pre-game show” will give tennis viewers the expectation that when matches begin, it’s all about the competition inside the white-lined rectangle. Tennis coverage can acquire a much sharper set of boundaries which will help viewers to appreciate the various dimensions of the sport.

3 – A STAR-HEAVY FOCUS

Much of what was said above about the lack of a publicly-labeled “pre-game show” flows into this point. If a network allows and/or encourages its commentators to talk about other topics when a match is unfolding live, viewers miss out on the Xs and Os of tennis. A chance to explain the sport to viewers is missed.

Similarly, a talk-centric model will naturally and almost invariably gravitate to the stars in the sport. Chris Fowler and Brad Gilbert and Pam Shriver don’t spend extended periods of time talking about Elena Vesnina or Lukasz Kubot or any of the many other players who reside outside the spotlight when the second week of a major arrives.

All these athletes carry stories, but some of them might not be supremely compelling for the non-American viewer – fair enough. Yet, in the first week of a major, the dramas that unfold on court are generally fashioned by those players, not the top-four seeds who cruise through straight-set victories. The story of tennis, if it’s going to be told in full, should include the lesser players or the characters to a far greater extent than what we currently see.

This problem is never more apparent than in the first week of a major.

Tennis fans know this scenario well: ESPN will show Roger Federer cruising, 4-1 or 5-2, in the first set against a tomato can on the main stadium court. Meanwhile, two journeymen (or journeywomen) players are in a first-set tiebreaker. A star-centric TV approach sticks with Federer, and this is what ESPN often chooses. A tennis-first approach would go to the tiebreaker in the not-as-sexy match. Everyone knows Federer’s going to close out that first set; it’s uncertain as to whether Journeyman X or Journeyman Y will win this tiebreak in a match that means so much more to both competitors. You’ll see this happen a lot at Roland Garros and the other majors. It’s a commonplace occurrence, not a rare one.

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Remember this big-picture reality as well: In six to eight years or so, when the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are a few years into their 30s, the ATP Tour’s “Golden Era” will end. Men’s tennis could quickly return to the no-man’s land it inhabited in 2002 and 2003, and at times in the latter half of the 1990s, specifically 1997. There will come a time when Federer and Nadal will be commentators or philanthropists, not players, and a star-focused approach to tennis discussion simply won’t be possible. Tennis broadcasters have to sell the sport more than individuals if they want these properties to give them a good long-term return on their investments.

Will ESPN’s ownership of the four majors amount to much of anything in 2022, especially in the realm of men’s tennis? The WWL better start promoting the sport as much as the stars, if not more.

2 – ESPN’S UNWILLINGNESS TO USE A TWO-CHANNEL SETUP FOR ALL FOUR MAJORS… FOR NOW

ESPN the company gets it right at Wimbledon, where it uses two channels — ESPN and ESPN2 — for the fourth round and the quarterfinals of the world’s most famous tennis tournament. One channel covers one show court, while another channel covers the other show court and/or a collection of outside courts. Tennis tournaments, up to the semifinal round, necessarily place multiple singles matches in the same time window. Devoting multiple channels to a tennis major is a necessary part of providing adequate coverage.

It is therefore distressing that ESPN does not use the two-channel approach at the other major tournaments. It is also worrisome that when ESPN and Tennis Channel combine to cover the U.S. Open, you will sometimes find the two networks covering the same match on their separate broadcasts. Tennis coverage of majors has to become a two-channel operation for ESPN, and if there’s an ESPN-Tennis Channel overlap, the two networks have to be better about not showing the same match at the same time. This isn’t complicated, or at least, it shouldn’t be.

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1 – NBC’S TAPE-DELAYED ROLAND GARROS MEN’S SEMIFINAL

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The mere existence of this image is both ironic and cruel for American tennis fans, a gut punch to tennis lovers in the United States. Why? NBC Sports Network has always been available as a potential (and appropriate) vehicle for NBC to show plenty of hours of live tennis to an American audience. Yet, NBC corporate — led by the vision of Dick Ebersol, the Lord Of Tape Delayed International Sporting Events — has stubbornly refused to put tennis on NBCSN. Here’s the bigger picture, though: For all of NBC’s enormous faults and failings, the French Tennis Federation viewed NBC’s methods to be entirely acceptable, and for that reason, it is guilty of the greater sin.

The worst ongoing problem with respect to the coverage of tennis in the United States is clearly this one. Yes, it’s NBC’s fault that it chooses to show the second Roland Garros men’s semifinal on tape delay in non-Eastern time zones. However, this long-running debacle is more centrally the fault of the French Tennis Federation.

The FTF (or FFT, as it is known in France) has been willing and happy to accept NBC’s money, knowing that the Peacock will still tape delay one of its men’s semifinals. In contrast, The All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (which runs Wimbledon) stopped accepting NBC’s money after 2011, awarding complete rights to ESPN in time for the 2012 tournament. NBC had been tape delaying one Wimbledon men’s semifinal on a consistent basis, with ESPN getting the rights to the other semifinal. NBC had also been tape delaying the women’s singles semifinals over the years. The All-England Club viewed this as unacceptable, and it acted accordingly. The FTF, on the other hand, continues to be NBC’s accomplice in promoting tape-delayed tennis.

Just how embarrassing is this tape delay situation? It was only by accident that American viewers got to see the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal semifinal last year, won by Nadal after more than four and a half hours of riveting competition (9-7 in the fifth set).

The semifinals of Roland Garros are usually arranged such that the more attractive matchup is second, not first. Djokovic-Nadal would ordinarily have occupied that slot, subjecting it to NBC’s tape-delayed broadcast while the first semifinal went live on Tennis Channel. However, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga upset Roger Federer to make the semifinals against David Ferrer. Tsonga, being French, commanded a prime-time slot from the FTF on home soil. Federer might have been able to get the same treatment, but Tsonga made the decision easier from the FTF’s viewpoint. It was pure luck that Djokovic-Nadal went first, sparing Americans in the Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones from a disaster. Of course, in 2011 and 2012, a semifinal between Djokovic and Federer went second in Paris, subjecting it to NBC’s tape delay policy outside the Eastern time zone. NBC offered live streaming, but not live TV coverage in all time zones.

NBC, like CBS at the U.S. Open, has bothered to hold the rights to a tennis major, only to then treat said major like dirt. NBC would much rather protect The Today Show in all time zones instead of showing a live Roland Garros semifinal. Dick Ebersol’s approach to tennis, carried on by the current NBC regime, deserves no praise.

What is particularly damning about NBC’s coverage of Roland Garros is that it has a set-aside sports channel — NBC Sports Network — with which it could cover matches during the week, and at the very least, the second men’s semifinal. Roland Garros should be a natural container of sports programming inventory, the second men’s semifinal being a signature property. Moreover, when the 2012 Roland Garros final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was stopped by rain, the suspended match had to be completed on Monday. NBC Sports Network picked up the match, raising the question of why it wasn’t a regular home for NBC French Open coverage on a regular basis. Many American tennis fans had to scramble to find NBC Sports Network at the last second. Had NBCSN been a consistent carrier of tennis, such a problem would not have existed.

NBC’s “coverage” of tennis, once an industry standard in the 1980s, has become a laughingstock today. Yet, NBC has been allowed to continue to mangle a major because the French Tennis Federation has not been a better or more thoughtful custodian of its own tournament.

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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