ESPN locks up Wimbledon rights

Cabler inks 12-year exclusive deal

ESPN has knocked off NBC as the home for the Wimbledon finals.

Cabler signed a 12-year pact Tuesday with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for the prestigious tourney, beginning next year. Deal will encompass the men and women’s finals, as well as expanded coverage of the round of 16 and live telecasts of the quarterfinals.

Broadcast partner ABC will also carry a three-hour highlight show in the middle Sunday of the tournament and will repeat both finals at 3 p.m. the same day the matches are played.

Deal, estimated at about $400 million, ends the 43-year relationship Wimbledon had with NBC and brings the finals to cable for the first time. While the Peacock had a stronghold on the finals during that time, ESPN has also covered the tournament for the past nine years, with coverage of the early rounds and a handful of later-round matches.

While NBC’s deal with Wimbledon just expired, ESPN had two more years remaining on its pact.

One reason the club made the move to ESPN was that “we felt it was important to have a single narrative across the two weeks of the championship, and we believe we achieved that through this deal,” said Ian Ritchie, chief exec of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Ritchie added that ESPN’s commitment to showing the matches live was a big factor as well. NBC has long tape-delayed coverage in order to air it in better-viewed time periods in the U.S., and has often been criticized for its time-shifting policies.

“Tape delay has its place, but certainly, in my mind, live coverage is pre-eminent,” he said. “It’s a factor we looked at in the new deal. Also, we have a fantastic amount of matches beyond Centre Court.”

Acquisition is a coup for ESPN as it battles NBCUniversal and its sports cabler Versus for pre-eminent events around the globe.

NBC is hoping to have enough high-profile events on Versus, which recently landed a 10-year deal with the NHL, that it could rise in stature and begin to challenge ESPN in viewership. That would likely be years, if not decades away, and clearly the execs at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., are well aware of saturating the sports marketplace and not giving Versus a toehold in acquiring popular programming.

ESPN exec VP of content John Skipper said: “We are cognizant that NBC is a formidable competitor for rights, but we also expect to see long line of competitors at the table. It doesn’t really change the nature of what we do. The value of live events is very important to us.”

ESPN will also air Wimbledon matches on sister net ESPN2 as well as its online component, ESPN3. However, the finals will not be live-streamed on ESPN3 or any online platform.

Net will likely have discussions with analyst John McEnroe about joining the Wimbledon broadcast booth. The former tennis champ, who worked for NBC for the tourney, is already under contract with ESPN for the U.S. Open, which begins in late August.

Both Skipper and Ritchie said they were unconcerned about the dearth of top American players of late, and how that would affect U.S. viewing habits. Andy Roddick, one of the top U.S. males in recent years, was ousted in an early round of this year’s tournament, and neither Williams sister — Serena and Venus — reached the semifinals.

While total viewer totals aren’t available yet, this year’s men’s final between winner Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal earned a 2.1 overnight rating, up from the 1.9 overnight of a year ago. On the women’s side — where Petra Kvitova defeated Maria Sharapova — 1.8 overnight was the same as last year’s women’s finale.

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