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ESPN aces Comcast for Wimbledon rights

July 5, 2011 | 10:38 am

WIMB Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN served up an ace to beat out Comcast for the television rights to Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tennis tournament.

The new agreement continues a trend of big-time sports migrating from broadcast television to cable. ESPN already had the rights to much of Wimbledon, but Comcast's NBC had been airing the finals and semifinals for more than 40 years. Now the finals will be seen on ESPN and rerun on Disney's ABC.

Neither ESPN nor the All England Lawn Tennis Club would comment on the terms of the deal, but people familiar with the pact said the 12-year contract was valued at well over $400 million. News Corp.'s Fox also took a look at Wimbledon.

Comcast fought hard to hold serve with Wimbledon. The NBC deal for the tournament expired with this year's event, which concluded Sunday, while ESPN's cable deal still had another two years to go. NBC wanted to extend its broadcast deal for two years and then move the cable rights to its own sports channel, Versus, which it is trying to build into a legitimate rival to ESPN.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club, however, wanted Wimbledon to have one home and didn't want to wait two years for that to happen.

"We felt it was very important to have a single narrative across the two weeks of the championship," said Ian Ritchie, the club's chief executive.

One of the deciding factors in sealing the deal was ESPN's willingness to air much of the Wimbledon matches live as opposed to tape delay, as NBC does. Tennis fans get annoyed with NBC for delaying the telecast of the matches, as it has done in favor of its "Today" show.

"We want to see as many games live and on TV as can be managed," said Ritchie, adding that this was something he had discussed with NBC for some time.

"I’m sure tape delay has its place, but certainly in my mind live is preeminent," he said.

Besides airing more of the tournament on its various cable channels, ESPN also plans to make Wimbledon coverage available on digital platforms including mobile. However, the finals will not be streamed live on the Internet.

Although ratings for Wimbledon are smaller compared to baseball and football, it attracts an affluent audience that advertisers pay top dollar to reach. Luxury cars and financial service firms are among the biggest advertisers in tennis.

ESPN's snagging of all the rights to Wimbledon comes just weeks after Comcast outbid the cable sports empire to keep the Olympics on its properties through the next decade.

"We are cognizant of the fact that Comcast is a formidable competitor," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content. "It doesn’t really change the  nature of what we do."

--  Joe Flint


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Photo: Michael Llodra of France competing at this year's Wimbledon. Credit: Julian Finney / Getty Images