After airing the French Open either as the main cable rights holder or a subleasee dating back to 2003, ESPN has decided it will no longer air the event. Since 2007, it had been subleasing rights from Tennis Channel and at one time was airing matches from noon until 5 p.m. ET, but since 2013, the network was on from 5 – 10 a.m. Sports Business Journal reports that the decision to drop the French was not due to costs, but due to being third on the totem pole for matches behind main rights holders NBC and Tennis Channel.
And because ESPN2’s window was in an early time slot, SBJ’s John Ourand and Daniel Kaplan note that ratings for the French Open had dropped below its regular morning lineup.
Over the last three years, ESPN2 ratings for its French Open coverage averaged 0.2, bottoming out with an average of 233,000 viewers for the 2014 tournament. Earlier this year, the average inched up to 267,000 viewers for its weekday morning coverage.
ESPN2’s regular programming produces more viewers in that weekday morning time slot. In the week before this year’s French Open, for example, “First Take” averaged 450,000 viewers and “Mike & Mike” averaged 263,000.
ESPN issued the following statement to Awful Announcing regarding its decision to stop airing the French Open:
“After much consideration and a terrific relationship with the French Open, we have decided not to renew our sub-license relationship there with Tennis Channel. Our role there as the no. 3 U.S. television entity did not fit our successful model at the other three Majors.”
But this does not mean that Tennis Channel will venture in 2016 as the exclusive cable rights holder of the event. Ourand and Kaplan report that NBCSN is now in position to take over ESPN’s early morning window:
The matches are likely to move over to NBC Sports Network, though NBC has not begun talks with Tennis Channel, which holds the event’s rights through 2023. NBC has been the French Open’s primary U.S. broadcast TV home since 1975, largely covering the weekend matches.
The morning block of international programming fits in with NBC’s strategy. It has found success by showing English Premier League games and Formula One races, for example.
If NBCSN steps in, it will continue the confusion for viewers especially when matches transition from one network to Tennis Channel at 10 a.m. And when NBC carries a semifinal match live in just one time zone while not in the others and preventing Tennis Channel from airing it live, although that did not happen this year.
Still, it means ESPN will no longer be known as the Grand Slam Network as it will carry the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. All three tournaments are locked with ESPN into the next decade. Tennis Channel’s rights for the French expires in 2022.