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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Championships, Wimbledon 2014 on ESPN

It’s time to review the fabulous fortnight that was The Championships, Wimbledon 2014. It was ESPN’s third year as the main rightsholder of the tournament. This year, it had to deal with the World Cup and shuffle coverage to ESPNews.

Overall, the network did well, but there were moments of questionable programming decisions. With that in mind, let us go over the good, the bad and ugly of Wimby on ESPN/ESPNews/ESPN2.

THE GOOD

Chris McKendry’s first Wimbledon came off with flying colors. Normally utilized at the Australian Open, this was her first opportunity to host at SW19. With Mike Tirico in Brazil for the World Cup, McKendry had very good moments as the main host. She worked well with the network’s analysts especially when the Brothers McEnroe, John and Patrick were on the set. Often needing to reign them in when they got off track, McKendry showed she’s capable of challenging analysts and knowing when to let them speak. It would behoove ESPN to utilize her at the U.S. Open next month.

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Johnny Mac is one of the premier analysts on any sport and his honesty is always a breath of fresh air in the booth. He shows no sign of slowing down as he works Wimbledon on both BBC and ESPN sometimes calling as many as four matches a day. McEnroe will be on the U.S. Open for CBS and ESPN and he’ll be in pure form once again.

Other analysts who performed well at Wimby were Darren Cahill, Chris Evert, Brad Gilbert, and Patrick McEnroe. And despite the World Cup, ESPN did give plenty of notice that ESPNews would pick up live matches when ESPN and ESPN2 were carrying group stage and Round of 16 games. With ESPN being the rightsholder for Wimbledon, ESPN3 had uninterrupted online coverage unlike the French Open whose rights are owned by Tennis Channel. For the French, ESPN3 could not carry live matches past 10 a.m. ET.

Chris Fowler and Cliff Drysdale are good on play-by-play, but there are times when Fowler acts as analyst and asks leading questions to his partner to ensure he or she agrees with him. I hope this is not a harbinger of college football season when he begins his first season of play-by-play with Kirk Herbstreit.

ESPN does miss Mary Carillo and it would do well if it hired Ted Robinson to call matches, but for the most part, tennis is treated well on the network.

THE BAD

There weren’t too many bad moments for the Worldwide Leader at Wimbledon. But when they went bad, ESPN sank to unprecedented depths. During the first days of coverage, ESPN chose to go all-talk on the set rather than focusing on live action.

This is one of the most annoying facets of its coverage whether it be in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York. ESPN is saying to its viewers, “Go watch something else while we interview a player or send you to a live press conference.”

These interviews are not of the utmost importance and rarely do they add to your viewing experience. What ESPN could do is show them later after the live matches, but instead, the network cut out large chunks of action.

Matt Zemek at Bloguin’s sister site, Attacking the Net, wrote this piece on how ESPN handled the first week at Wimbledon including some maddening moments of interrupting matches for a live news conference.

THE UGLY

On Ladies’ Final Saturday, ESPN made one of the most questionable programming decisions in its recent history by not airing the exciting five set Gentlemen’s Doubles Final between the Bryan Brothers and Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock. ESPN instead chose to re-air the Novak Djokovic-Grigor Dimitrov semifinal match from Friday for the rest of its Saturday window.

There was barely a mention of the doubles final’s progress except for an occasional flash on the bottom line. And while the doubles final did go past the 3 p.m. ET hour when ESPN tossed to World Cup coverage, the least the higher-ups could have done was to shuffle the match to ESPNews.

Instead, the WWL decided to stream the doubles final online on its ESPN3 service. ESPN felt American viewers were not worthy to watch the final on television while fans in Canada and the UK were able to watch it on TSN/TSN2 and BBC Two, respectively.

With three Americans in the final, you would think that ESPN would have jumped all over this, but instead, it oddly chose to air a day-old replay. While NBC’s coverage of Wimbledon was deservedly maligned, the Peacock had a good history of airing doubles finals live in its live weekend windows. And you know it would have aired this year’s men’s doubles match. Some props to Chris Fowler who said the rank-and-file at Wimby wanted the network to air the match: live.

Here’s hoping that ESPN will rectify this situation next year and not show a day-old match in place of live action on Championship Saturday.

Another issue is the conflict of interest that runs rampant on ESPN’s coverage. Mary Joe Fernandez is married to a tennis agent. Patrick McEnroe is an executive with the US Tennis Association and Darren Cahill works with Adidas. Sometimes these relationships are disclosed on the air, but often they’re not. While all three should not lose their ESPN positions, the network would serve the viewer better by doing more disclosure. All three analysts are good on the air, but knowing their relationships, one has to wonder if their judgements are clouded.

Overall, ESPN gets a B for its coverage. It’s good certainly outweighs the bad and the ugly, but questions remain on how the network can improve and provide the entire experience of a Grand Slam tournament rather than drips and drabs.

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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