NETCETERA: My Point: Waking the Giant
5/18/04 0:17 AM
Illustration by Dan Picasso.
How ESPN can make tennis fans happy.
By Stephen Tignor
From the June 2004 issue of TENNIS Magazine
For two decades, ESPN has been the biggest game in town for serious tennis fans (at this point, Cliff Drysdale’s swank ramblings are virtually the soundtrack for the sport). Even as it has grown from a tiny cable pioneer into the colossus of sports TV, ESPN hasn’t left tennis behind. Last year, it expanded its coverage of the majors, brought in two of its broadcast pros, Chris Fowler and Suzy Kolber, as hosts, and won an Emmy for the Shot Spot ball-tracking system. In 2004, ESPN’s channels will show more than 500 hours of tennis.
And how have fans reacted to these efforts? By complaining more loudly than ever about which matches ESPN chooses to televise.
Can the network ever win? Here are two simple suggestions for ESPN as it prepares to deluge us with Roland Garros and Wimbledon coverage. One should help please its small but loyal base of tennis fans, and the other might even add a few members to its ranks.
Show the best tennis.
The major complaint among fans is that even with the added airtime, broadcasts focus narrowly on big names, particularly U.S. ones. Nothing new, ESPN might say—it never avoided
a Pete Sampras match. But during the Australian Open this year, viewers saw reruns of matches featuring Venus Williams and Andre Agassi and every drama-free moment of early round demolitions by Andy Roddick. Tight contests involving Tim Henman, Guillermo Cańas, and Marat Safin were relegated to the highlight reel. The rationale is simple: Fans want to see players they recognize. Makes sense, right? Perhaps, but not as a long-term strategy.
Attracting an audience for hundreds of hours of tennis requires getting people interested in (1) more players, not fewer; and (2) the game of tennis itself. The network can’t count on the stars playing every day, and ESPN’s viewers are sports
fans—they may be drawn in by celebrities, but they stay tuned to see the best of what sports offers: hard-fought competition and athletes performing at the highest levels, both of which happen every day at the Grand Slams.
That abundance of action is what spectators love about the majors, and ESPN has the means to put it on the screen. Rather than repeat a blowout by Jennifer Capriati, use the extra hours to show dramatic matches, even if they involve non-celebrities (anyone who watches Cańas fight through a five-setter will be a fan for life). Or introduce American viewers to the game’s young international stars—familiarize people with Rafael Nadal and Nicole Vaidisova now and there’ll be no need to skip their matches in the future.
Yes, U.S. fans root for U.S. players, but they will embrace pros whose names they can’t pronounce. Could you say “Younes El Aynaoui” before last year? You probably can now. Unknown until 2003, the flamboyant Moroccan popped up on ESPN at the Australian Open and Wimbledon; by fall he was playing to packed houses—against other non-Americans—at the U.S. Open.
Create an audience.
ESPN is conflicted about tennis. On the one hand, by adding Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it has given its coverage a higher profile; otherwise, it seems to go out of its way to hide the sport. There are no analysis shows, promos are few and far between, and highlights rarely appear before the last 10 minutes of SportsCenter, even for events the network is showing. ESPN thinks its audience doesn’t want tennis. But the network’s following is so loyal it can create viewers. Was there a clamor for poker, bowling, or pool before ESPN helped make them hip? Tennis may never have their low-rent appeal—but it does have the advantage of actually being a sport.
Whatever prejudice remains against tennis—a lingering country-club reputation?—ESPN has the opportunity to kill it off. Case in point: During the men’s event in Montreal last year, a Canadian sports network opened its news show with a SportsCenter-
like montage of baseball and basketball players. But mixed in with those clips was something unusual: shots of Roddick crushing a serve, Agassi practicing, Lleyton Hewitt arguing. The divide between tennis and the major sports was quickly closed. Anyone could see that tennis has just what they have—world-class athletes with skill and attitude. It’s time for ESPN to let people know about it.