There’s plenty to say about ESPN’s coverage of the first week of Wimbledon, but every word on that particular subject must be placed in a much larger context that’s tangled, thorny, and widely misunderstood.
Specific treatment of ESPN’s first week at Wimbledon comes later in this piece, but first, a few things need to be said about gender, star power, and the eternal tug of war between the responsible action and the profitable action in televised media. They are intimately related to any discussion about the coverage of tennis on television, and at Wimbledon — the signature event on the tennis calendar — there’s never a better time to engage in this debate.
A discussion of the televised coverage of tennis, or any other niche-sport product in the marketplace, is best advanced by pointing to the rapid growth and improvement in the coverage of soccer in the United States.
You’ll quickly note that I did not refer to women’s soccer, even though the Women’s World Cup — as reported frequently here at Awful Announcing — has set all sorts of viewership records and has achieved the specific breakthrough of getting mothers and daughters to watch televised sports.
Why refer to soccer in general and not women’s soccer in particular, even though making women’s sports more of a commercial powerhouse is an important goal for anyone who values the place of women’s sports in the marketplace?
Here’s the key insight: Soccer coverage — not just availability of matches, but discussion and intelligent treatment — has increased over the past decade because TV networks have taken soccer seriously. To be more precise, they have covered soccer the way soccer fans would want the sport to be covered.
There’s no need to make things any more complicated than they need to be: In the coverage of any sport, any outlet should strive for nothing other than treating the subject matter intelligently, the way fans expect their sport to be treated. It’s that simple.
Fans — who are TV viewers and product consumers — know bullshit when they see and hear it on TV. Conversely, they know when they see intelligent analysis and responsible broadcast decisions to show Match X instead of Match Y. It’s just not complicated. If you treat a sport thoughtfully, viewers respond well. This is the story of soccer — regardless of gender — in the United States over the past decade, and it has so much to say about how tennis should be treated on TV in this country.
FOX and Fox Sports 1 have handled the Women’s World Cup this year, but there can be no doubt that ESPN — with Bob Ley and Ian Darke leading the way — did a great deal to make soccer on TV a much-improved sports entertainment product over the last 10 years. ESPN soccer coverage did nothing other than to take the sport seriously, on its own terms. Skepticism about the long-term economic viability of soccer as a TV presence persisted for decades, but we’ve certainly crossed a threshold on the subject. Soccer, by all appearances, is here to stay, after decades of lagging far behind other sports in the American marketplace. This happened not by trivializing the sport or feeding viewers junk-food-level discussion, but by shaping content toward serious soccer fans and inviting casual fans to see how great soccer can be.
This is a model for how journalism (i.e., hard news/politics/current affairs) should be practiced as well on television: You don’t dumb down the content, but instead give viewers the best in quality, treating stories and subjects intelligently and aggressively. What do you get when you do this? You get 60 Minutes, 47 years young and still an anchor for CBS on Sunday nights.
This leads into an examination of ESPN’s first week at Wimbledon.
First off, it has to be noted that in the second week of Wimbledon, ESPN is a godsend for tennis fans. The two-channel setup ESPN will use for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week will give viewers access to almost every important occurrence in the tournament, just in time for the fourth round and quarterfinals. This is the best innovation in tennis television, hands down. ESPN will make tennis fans very happy the next few days, because it will treat the sport the way it is supposed to be treated.
However, in week one of Wimbledon, no two-channel setup exists, and for that reason, the sport was just not taken seriously by The WorldWide Leader.
If you’ve followed the televised coverage of tennis on American networks the past several years, you know that it is superstar-based. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray get preference in coverage. Just about everyone else, with an occasional exception (Venus Williams, maybe Caroline Wozniacki), gets cast to the side.
Casual sports fans and TV viewers might not be able to appreciate this, which is perfectly understandable, but let it be known: The serious tennis fan — the person who wants his/her sport to be treated the way soccer is treated by American TV these days — wants to see the close, competitive match between journeymen or second-tier players over the lopsided (or just-beginning) match involving a superstar in week one of a tournament. Similarly, the serious tennis fan would much rather see live tennis — if live tennis is going on — instead of anchor-desk commentary. Serious tennis fans would generally not mind if television networks provided audio of anchors and analysts talking about a superstar player, but showed a picture of a live tennis match, with the scorebox and other relevant graphics offering real-time results for each point.
Again, this is not complicated.
Think about college basketball as a point of comparison with tennis, especially if you’re not a serious tennis fan.
When the NCAA tournament had not yet gone to the current four-network setup (CBS, TBS, TNT, TruTV), and CBS was the only show in town, you wanted CBS to be sure to ship you to the first-round game that was close, late in the second half. You wanted to be taken to where the action was the most competitive and urgent. When CBS did that in the 1990s and early 2000s, it took college basketball — and its fans — seriously. When it did not, it failed to do so.
Why should it be any different for tennis? If broadcasters take the sport seriously, they’ll look beyond the superstars and show the important matches and the important segments of less important matches. Yet, ESPN’s track record in week one of Wimbledon was substandard from Thursday through Saturday.
THURSDAY: Rafael Nadal got knocked out of the tournament, which naturally gave ESPN analysts a forum in which to address his career. ESPN could have provided audio of its paid analysts dissecting Nadal’s career and shown a fifth-set thriller between Ivo Karlovic and Alexandr Dolgopolov — a match which ended 13-11 in favor of Karlovic. Instead, ESPN showed pictures of its pundits talking and flatly ignored Karlovic’s dramatic win. There was high-intrigue live tennis to be covered, but with only one channel reserved for broadcast coverage instead of the two channels available in the second week of Wimbledon, ESPN devoted both audio and video to punditry, pushing live tennis to the side.
This continued the next few days.
FRIDAY: Serena Williams barely escaped Heather Watson in a three-set thriller. The reality of Serena coming very close to an upset loss rightly made ESPN offer extended post-match commentary, but that commentary was shown on TV (instead of just in audio-only form). As a result, extended portions of John Isner’s match against Marin Cilic were ignored. ESPN did not pick up coverage of that match until at a much later stage in the proceedings, once it had “talked out” the Serena scare in full.
SATURDAY: ESPN offered complete coverage of matches featuring Roger Federer and Andy Murray, but defending Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova — who is not a member of the superstar club and lacks the marketplace clout of Maria Sharapova — had her match relegated to the shadows. This occurred partly at the expense of a feature on the 30th anniversary of Boris Becker’s first Wimbledon title in 1985.
A key point here: Middle Sunday of Wimbledon has no live tennis, so in ABC’s three-hour Middle Sunday programming block, retrospectives such as the one involving Becker would be absolutely perfect to show to viewers. Instead, ESPN stuck this feature into a Saturday packed with live tennis. That’s woefully shortsighted.
To be more specific about the extent to which Kvitova’s match was treated: Only one game in the first set was shown. Little of the second set was shown. The third set was the only set of the match in which a majority of the set was televised. This, for the defending champion.
Serious tennis fans were upset, and they had a right to be. Women’s tennis fans had a particular grievance, given that the women’s champion was largely ignored in favor of men’s stars. However — and this is important to realize — for all the gender imbalances that exist in tennis, the above examples show that gender preference does not always cut in one direction. Moreover, pro-American interests don’t always affect ESPN’s decision.
Thursday, a lower-tier men’s match (Karlovic-Dolgopolov) was treated poorly. Friday, John Isner — an American — was not given as much coverage as he should have been. On Saturday and at other points in week one, women’s tennis was shamefully handled, but flaws in coverage didn’t always flow in one (geneder-based) direction.
This brings us full-circle and back to the beginning of our discussion.
There shouldn’t need to be a distinction between women’s tennis and men’s tennis, in much the same way that there shouldn’t be a distinction between women’s soccer and men’s soccer. Treat soccer like soccer, and viewers will follow. Similarly, if TV (ESPN) simply treats tennis like tennis, it might be surprised to realize how much that will help ESPN’s ratings in the long run.
ESPN, with soccer, led by example. It did not conform to a market research view of what fans want; it courageously believed that if it treated the sport seriously, viewers would meet ESPN halfway and trust the product more. ESPN has not yet crossed this threshold in tennis, but if it ever made a full-fledged effort to do so, it might do for tennis what has so blessedly happened for soccer in this country.
The conventional wisdom says that the right thing to do in broadcast media is often different from the profitable thing to do. In a short-term context, this is true, but one problem with any form of TV coverage on any subject — within or outside of sports — is that anything which feels good (in terms of ratings) in the short run is often damaging in the long run. You might get good ratings in a given week, but if you take your subjects much more seriously, you might have a higher floor for your ratings over much larger periods of time. Moreover, if short-term circumstances change in certain ways, a philosophy of coverage dependent on a few key factors — instead of the much surer foundation of strong journalistic quality — can crumble.
For tennis, this is glaringly obvious, and it should be obvious to anyone paying attention to the coverage of this spot on American television.
When Serena, Sharapova, Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Andy retire in six to eight years or thereabouts, what then? Where will the star power exist in tennis? ESPN and other networks have so fully committed to the superstar model of tennis coverage that when this wonderful era in the sport’s history runs its course, viewers might brush off tennis for many years. A broadcast philosophy based on promoting the sport more than the stars is the way to sustain viewer interest for decades, not just the next few years.
As we end this discussion, keep in mind that as Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing noted just a few days ago, rights fees for live sporting events are increasing, with no end in sight. Well, in tennis, we actually might see an end in the next several years, once today’s current superstars begin to leave the scene. ESPN will either be in a situation where it owns properties with highly inflated values, or sees rights fees drop to the extent that competitors can afford to bid for them.
ESPN will always be the gold standard for sports coverage… WHEN it chooses to treat sports on their own terms. ESPN showed this with soccer, and it has no problem showing this with pro football or baseball. It was an excellent hockey broadcaster when it had rights to the NHL, and it does an outstanding job with college football as the steward of the College Football Playoff.
However, ESPN has not yet reached that point with tennis. It still treats the sport as “Celebrity Showcase” for both genders. This might get short-term ratings among casual fans, but it doesn’t win and retain long-term tennis fans. It certainly doesn’t convert the people who are always ready to say that tennis is boring or a sissy sport. It certainly doesn’t advance the cause of women’s sports — not when a player such as Petra Kvitova is largely ignored, and it’s basically the Serena and Sharapova Show to the exclusion of almost everyone else.
ESPN’s going to do a great job with the second week of Wimbledon, because it will devote two channels to the project and take tennis seriously. Week-one coverage of The Championships, however, perpetuated so many of the problems that no longer persist in mainstream TV coverage of soccer.
If ESPN can ever take tennis seriously all the time, not just some of the time, it might be surprised how durable a television product it can build and sustain for the long haul. Should this transforation occur, we’ll never look at sports television the same way again.