Televised tennis has become a little bit more like a real match of tennis with today’s announcement that ESPN and The Tennis Channel (TTC) are joining forces for coverage of Roland Garros and the Australian Open.
If you’re fortunate enough to get TTC, there are some real gems to this deal. For one, you’ll be treated to four hours of prime time coverage with (presumably) Murphy Jensen roaming the streets of Paris pissing off tourists and Parisians alike in something called “Paris After Dark”. Secondly, you’ll also get to see some matches that you would have whined about not getting to see on ESPN2. Given that TTC actually does know something about our sport, it’s a safe bet that the matches will be good ones. Thirdly, you’ll get to see one of the men’s semis. Obviously that last bit is somewhat of a downer if you don’t happen to get TTC, but nevermind that now.
Let’s take a look at some of the less than awe inspiring facets:
Reach: This is TTC’s achilles heel, and something we have to consider. They simply aren’t in a big share of American television households. Since their inception, fans have taken part in online petitions and made repeated phone calls to their cable providers to even get the network added to their line-up, often to no avail. Forget the fact that you have to pay extra for it. We American tennis fans are very happy to cough up a few extra bucks a month to see Davis Cup, right?
While there have been reports that they’re fanning out to get cable providers to carry the network, TTC hasn’t been as successful as they were when they inked a deal with EchoStar satellite network a few years ago, and have plateaued at roughly 10 million American homes. This is no small hurdle — it’s a moutain for them to climb. Fans in major markets like New York City, the largest media market in the US, can’t get TTC. That’s a problem. A big problem.
Advertisers: Right now they’ve got some solid support from the ‘make money at home’ people and some folks who want you to ‘sell your campground membership or timeshare for caaash’. As mentioned previously, one thing I noted during the Aussie Open was that ESPN2 wasn’t really drawing a ton of advertisers either. While carrying a Grand Slam tournament is a big thing, unless it’s the U.S. Open, it’s pretty tough to bank on custom-made Lexus spots in these here American States.
Part of the deal with ESPN includes a “marketing alliance”. It’s doubtful that this indicates that they’ll be sharing the kitty, but will presumably help to expand TTC’s brand out to potential new advertisers for the future.
New Media: I’m probably the most skeptical in this area. And not just because I can’t seem to find the press release on TTC’s website. Okay, I lied. That’s part of it. (Update: As I was writing this they posted it.) My skepticism is due to the barbie dreamhouse wish list they’ve proffered up. Maybe I’m still bitter that ESPN promised some great online highlights via ESPN360 for AO and never delivered on it. Maybe because I generally think ESPN360 is a waste of time anyway, since I am on one of the few ISP’s that get it and still don’t see what the great shakes are.
That aside, looking at TTC’s website is painful, but there are some interesting things to be seen there. A fun exercise for me has always been entering a zip code into the form where they ask if you want to “Get The Tennis Channel.” Try it. Why, it’s fun for your whole computer!
A recent interesting addition is that they seem to be having a contest to find a writer to cover Roland Garros for them. Uh-oh. That can’t be good. You would think that they would have people on staff to do things like…writing. Well, no, aparently not. So they’re getting some free help to do it in exchange for a trip to Paris. Um, okay. Maybe this is their attempt to have a roaming blogger at the helm? Sounds great, but it’s not really presented that way. Maybe they should hire a writer to help write their … well, you get it.
But hey, if you’re a blogger looking for a free trip to gay Paree in the spring, go for it dude. You might fly!
But I’m not here to totally rip on TTC’s website. Suffice to say that it needs some work, and I don’t foresee that happening in 3 short months to keep up with their new media promises. If TTC can get ESPN to “do their homework” (ie, produce all the web pieces) for them, that’s great. I find that hard to believe. Otherwise, I don’t see it getting done by TTC’s web staff, so I’m naturally skeptical of this piece.
Staff: Given the above, you might wonder how they’re going to pull off the coverage of Roland Garros at all. I figured that with the ten millie that USTA tossed at them, TTC would be hiring folks out the wazoo.
Looking at the “careers” page of their website tells a different story. They’ve had some postings for positions up since basically October, which speaks to the notion that they’re not really cracking to fill up slots. Then again, it’s not like they’re being run like the LTA (rimshot). But bear in mind that running a top-notch new media operation takes not only cash flow, but a tight staffing structure. Their website, as mentioned, is proof that they have one but not the other.
Coverage: Who knows how well TTC will do, but considering how well they do with the tournaments they cover with their own cameras, they do a fine job. But TTC has never covered a multi-court tourney like a Slam before. This is quite a departure from buying a pool cam feed and commentating from Santa Monica. It will be quite interesting to see how they deal with it. Either way, showing live matches from Paris and Melbourne will be a big morale boost for fans who would otherwise be glued to 3 inch video streams on their computers.
In sum, this basically sounds like a deal where the two networks will be hitting an invisible yellow ball of coverage back and forth over a virtual net, while tennis fans try and keep score. ESPN will cover the big names, and leave the real tennis to the fans to see on TTC. There’s nothing wrong with that… as long as you’re a fan who can actually get TTC.
For their part, TTC now has a big opportunity to really reach fans and show us that they’re worth our support and our money. The ball’s in their court. Let’s see if they can keep it in play.
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