Organizers of the 40th annual U.S. Open, being held Aug. 27 to Sept. 9 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., are anticipating an influx of new viewers this year as new platforms open up for the Grand Slam tennis tournament.
With CBS renewing its deal to host the broadcast portion of the event through 2012 and multiple bidders in the loop to assume USA’s cable rights to the tourney once its deal expires next month, the country’s best-attended annual sports event is trying to position itself as appointment television.
“The television landscape is such a different sports environment than it was in the ’70s,” said Chris Widmaier, senior director of public relations for the United States Tennis Association, which holds the competition. “In this day and age in the 21st century, you have to look at tennis with a very creative and innovative eye to determine how to support the popularity of the sport and determine what series of innovations to put into play to enhance the television broadcast.”
In 2001, the USTA moved the women’s final to prime time, scoring a large ratings boost. In 2004, the association created the U.S. Open series, a six-week summer tennis season that linked together 10 tournaments around the country. In 2005, the USTA controversially decided to change the courts from green to blue so that audiences would have an easier time seeing the ball. Last year, the U.S. Open introduced instant replay to the mix.
“We completely understand the importance of television, and each of these moves was designed to support the sport as well as our brand,” said Mr. Widmaier. “The U.S. Open series alone has helped create a fan-friendly summer season that doubled television viewership of tennis in the summer by year three.”
Last year also saw the USTA take an investment stake in cable’s Tennis Channel, which sources said is in the loop to receive a number of games once the cable portion of the television contracts are completed.
Last year, the USTA reportedly earned about $50 million worth of sponsorships for the U.S. Open, in addition to television rights fees. The recent six-year renewal with CBS was worth approximately $145 million, less than the previous deal but also including revenue sharing between CBS and the tennis organization.
For Tennis Channel Chairman-CEO Ken Solomon, the ability to tap into new digital outlets hasn’t diluted the sport’s fan base, but rather is bringing more fans in.
“I actually believe we are very much on the front end of the rebirth of tennis on television,” Mr. Solomon said. “We’re just beginning to harness not only the technology but also the unique format that brackets 128 men and 128 women. With the rise of media personalization now, tennis is uniquely suited for this, given that players are both male and female, they are from different countries around the world and they are pursuing a 52-week quest. The rise of technology could provide tennis with more growth in the coverage of the sport in the next five years than perhaps any other [sport].”
Web site numbers alone could justify that argument. Traffic on the organization’s site drew 26 million hits, an all-time high and an increase of nearly 25 percent over 2005. The first live webcast of the U.S. Open was streamed 261,000 times.
For CBS, the technology boom has kept producers busy maximizing technology to keep up with audience expectations.
“People’s expectations now of instantaneous tennis put a lot of pressure on us and what we should be showing them,” said Bob Mansbach, who produces the network’s U.S. Open coverage. “If you were showing a match in 1982, there was room to maneuver, but now media has made audiences want the action to be live and immediate, and it would be impossible to fool anybody. But that type of action is just an example of why the event has exploded, and why people can’t get a seat for the entire U.S. Open.”
The U.S. Open first launched as an event in August 1881 before officially becoming an “Open” in 1968.
U.S. Open at a Glance
The 2006 U.S. Open generated television ratings records and set several records in Web site traffic and attendance.
- USA Network in 2006 earned its best opening-night rating in its 23 years of U.S. Open coverage.
- Traffic on USOpen.org, the official tournament Web site, reached 26 million visits, an all-time record and an increase of 24% from the 2005 record.
- Unique visitors to USOpen.org increased by 43% to reach 6.5 million in 2006.
- The first live Webcast, on Monday, Sept. 4, 2006, was streamed 261,000 times.
- The daily total attendance record was set Sept. 4, 2006, topping 60,000 for the first time in the history of the event (60,506).
- One million more people played tennis in 2005 vs. 2004 and, according to the 2006 SGMA Superstudy, tennis is the only traditional sport to have seen participation growth since 2000.
Source: United States Tennis Association