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Wimbledon rights deal latest volley in ESPN/ABC vs. Comcast/NBC battle for sports broadcasting supremacy

When news broke of ESPN’s broadcast rights deal for Wimbledon – snapping NBC’s 43-year history of telecasting the event – I thought of one thing.


It’s a subject that comes up often with ESPN, which protects its turf like a greedy four-year-old with a bag of Halloween candy. According to the recent oral history of the Worldwide Sports Leader, “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” it’s also the reason they started ESPN2, among other efforts.

As Comcast-controlled NBC solidifies its approach to sports – securing the Olympics, reorganizing after the departure of longtime NBC Sports honcho Dick Ebersol, bidding for the NFL’s new Thursday night football package – ESPN now has an urgent rival in its bid to dominate sports media.

This is a concept the Worldwide Leader downplayed during its triumphant press conference Tuesday on the 12-year deal. Executive vice president of content John Skipper insisted, “Over the last few years, we have looked to crown champions on ESPN…We didn’t have to spend any time thinking about what it would do or not do to anybody else.”

Right. And sticking it to the Comcast-NBC overlords a couple of weeks after losing the Olympics to them wasn’t a factor at all.

For tennis fans, the move to ESPN seems a likely plus. Both ESPN and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club stressed the increase in live coverage that comes with this new deal, with close to 1,000 hours of live tennis across ESPN, ESPN2 and over the two weeks.

For those who have cut the cord with cable, sister network ABC will be home to rebroadcasts of the men’s and women’s finals, along with a three-hour special recapping the first week of play, while setting up the second week.

And for those journalists who insisted on asking about how ratings have fallen recently on NBC, Skipper confidently side-stepped the question, insisting that they were more concerned with audience across all their video platforms than ratings on broadcast or cable specifically.

“We are interested in the totality of the audience,” Skipper said. “We’re pretty confident that more people will watch the final next year. Whether more people watch the final next year on television, I’m less confident of. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Which is an answer you would expect if gaining Wimbledon were less about aggregating audiences where executives can make the most money on them – i.e., broadcast television – and more about gaining the loyal attention of tennis fans.

In some ways, ESPN faces a serious uphill battle with future Wimbledon tournaments. Americans love nothing more than cheering for their countrymen (and women!); just ask the NHL and pro soccer teams how big U.S. wins can juice domestic viewership.

But American tennis stars Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters went down in defeat during this year’s Wimbledon, as U.S. tennis has struggled to regain its former domination of the sport.

Yes, that’s great for the sport’s international reach and Americans should learn to care about an important sport regardless of who wins.

But that’s not how we Yanks roll. John McEnroe’s bratty dominance of the tournament in the 1980s helped spark major American attention; ESPN is going to need some help from U.S. athletes to boost domestic attention next year.

Regardless of the reason, tennis fans will get more live coverage than they can handle, with the Wimbledon coverage that was previously split between NBC and ESPN united in a single corporate home. The decided goal: minimizing the tape delays that angered fans and outdoing the network that kept the big events for longer than four decades.

I don’t know how the executives at these companies are dealing with the competition. But so far, the war between ESPN and Comcast/NBC is working out pretty well for those of us sitting on the sidelines.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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