Tom Butts is the Editor in Chief of TV Technology.
I'm a big tennis fan. As a child of the '70s, it wasn't hard to become one. Tennis was everywhere back then, particularly on television, where the sport gained notoriety via outsized personalities such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe and publicity stunts such as the 1973 "match" between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King that were made for television extravaganzas. The tennis court is ideal for the television screen, and after all, the first videogame for television was Pong, which was essentially primitive tennis.
For tennis fans, Wimbledon is the mecca of the sport. And television played an important part to Wimbledon's popularity and success over the past 40 years. While CBS may own the US Open, NBC was the broadcaster of record for the All England Lawn Tennis Championship, as it is fondly referred to. In addition to the lush grass courts and strawberries and cream, tradition is a hallmark of the fortnight-long event—something that even NBC acknowledged, for better or worse. Even the network's Wimbledon theme music lasted probably longer than it should have, but then, tradition was the name of the game for a network that practically trademarked the phrase "Breakfast at Wimbledon."
Another not so popular tradition was NBC's coverage schedule. From 1985 to 1999, the network shared coverage with HBO and since 2003 with ESPN. The vast majority of games were aired live on cable, but the women's and men's semifinals and finals were aired live on the Peacock Network—well almost. The network, unfortunately, had the habit of tape-delaying the men's semifinals on the last Friday of Wimbledon for the West Coast, and airing the Today Show live instead. That didn't sit well with tennis fans or Wimbledon officials.
And it was that very policy that helped lead to Wimbledon's sudden announcement right after the end of this year's tournament that it was moving its entire coverage to ESPN starting in 2012. While some wrapup coverage will be broadcast on ABC, the final will be aired live on ESPN, and rerun on ABC later the same day.
While NBC claimed that it was serious about retaining broadcast rights to the event, it couldn't promise fully live coverage until 2014, presumably as it works on building up its Versus cable channel into a full-fledged sports network, ready to compete head on with ESPN. But Wimbledon wouldn't wait. Granted, it was expected that if NBC had retained its rights, some of that very same Wimbledon coverage that was broadcast on a tape delayed basis could have ended up on cable anyways, but the announcement, nevertheless marks a seminal point in tele-vised sports—the continuing migration of major sports events to pay TV.
This is certainly not a new trend. Most MLB, NBA and NHL games moved to cable long ago, either to ESPN, TBS or regional sports networks, but much of the post-season coverage still airs on broadcast networks, which have the coverage and mass audience that advertisers covet. But when it comes to so-called "niche" sports such tennis and golf, more coverage will con-tinue to move either to channels dedicated to the sport such as the Golf Channel, Tennis Channel, ESPN or, as NBC hopes, to Versus.
Wimbledon officials said they based their decision to go with ESPN on consolidating its coverage on a single network as well as its strong multi-platform, uh, platform. "We felt it was very important to have a single narrative across the two weeks of the Championship, and we believe we achieved that by this deal," said All England Club Chief Executive Ian Ritchie. "If you couple that with the production strength, and the promotional strengths, particularly across a multi-platform delivery as we have with ESPN, we believe that the story of the Champion-ships will reach the maximum number of people."
And that, more than tradition, trumps everything in sports today.