The U.S. Open tennis tournament will leave CBS after nearly a half-century and move all TV coverage to cable starting in 2015 under an 11-year contract with ESPN.
The new deal between the U.S. Tennis Association and ESPN, announced Thursday, also includes the series of North American summer hard-court tournaments leading up to the Open.
Since 2009, ESPN already has shown some matches from the season’s last Grand Slam championship, with CBS airing a half-dozen days of coverage during the two weeks, including the men’s and women’s singles finals.
CBS has broadcast the U.S. Open every year since 1968; its current deal expires after the 2014 tournament.
ESPN will then take over the entire event until 2025, with the ability to sell off rights to other channels with USTA approval.
CBS is in about 15 million more households than ESPN or ESPN2.
“We expect the audience for the U.S. Open to increase, not to decrease, with all the platforms that we have digitally,” ESPN President John Skipper said during a conference call with reporters. “This sort of old canard that there’s something to be lost by going from broadcast to cable, I would submit, has it wrong. It is just the opposite. Moving to ESPN allows the opportunity to reach more people across platforms, and that’s what we believe will happen.”
He said ESPN eventually will give fans a chance to see action from all 17 courts at Flushing Meadows via television or computer.
“ESPN is the strongest brand in sports. It puts the U.S. Open at the center of American sports culture like never before,” USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Gordon Smith said.
The CBS coverage of the U.S. Open averaged a 1.4 rating last year, the lowest on record.
“We are proud of our long-term association with the USTA and wish them well,” CBS Sports spokesperson Jennifer Sabatelle said in an e-mailed statement. “Looking ahead, we have profitable partnerships with all of our key sports franchises locked up for many, many years to come. ... And in the meantime, we look forward to two more years of tennis on CBS.”
ESPN owns the rights to all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments and now will be able to air the singles championship matches at three of them (the exception is the French Open on NBC).
The U.S. Open’s shift from CBS to ESPN mirrors a similar switch made for Wimbledon: In 2011, the All England Club announced a 12-year deal to take the grass-court tournament from NBC after a 43-year run and sell those rights to ESPN.
Those two changes in tennis are only the latest examples of significant sports events moving to cable from one of the four over-the-air networks – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
College football’s Bowl Championship Series, including the national title game, is on ESPN, and NCAA basketball’s Final Four semifinals will air on TBS in 2014 and 2015, with the title game there, too, in 2016.
Starting in 2015, ESPN and ESPN2 plan to show more than 130 hours of live match action from Flushing Meadows. That year, the USTA is changing the schedule for the closing days of its tournament: women’s semifinals Thursday, men’s semifinals Friday, women’s final Saturday afternoon, men’s final Sunday afternoon.
Until then, the 2013 and 2014 U.S. Opens will play the women’s singles final Sunday and the men’s final Monday.
This year’s Open is scheduled for Aug. 26 to Sept. 8.
Each of the past five years, rain forced the USTA to postpone the men’s final from its Sunday slot to Monday. Because ESPN airs “Monday Night Football,” Skipper was asked what would happen if rain set up a conflict between tennis and the NFL.
Skipper said ESPN told the USTA how it would account for that, but he wouldn’t go into specifics on the conference call.
“We have a couple of years to plan for all potentialities,” he said, “and we will be fine if it goes to Monday night.”