Tennis Channel has announced that it will have exclusive cable coverage of the French Open. From 2007 through 2015, it had an agreement with ESPN that allowed the Worldwide Leader to pick up coverage on ESPN2 through the women’s semifinals. Last year, ESPN announced that it would no longer air the French Open as it carried the first five hours of coverage each weekday morning before giving way to Tennis Channel and did not have the pick of the more attractive matches.
Tennis Channel had been in talks with other networks like NBCSN to sublicense coverage, but with a new owner in Sinclair Broadcast Group, it decided to go alone and carry all of the matches in its contract. It means Tennis Channel will begin its daily coverage at 5 a.m. ET and continue through to the men’s and women’s semifinals. Tennis Channel owns rights to the French Open through 2023.
Tennis Channel will have rights to weekday coverage, morning matches on the weekend before giving way to NBC in the afternoon, all men’s and women’s quarterfinal matches, one women’s semifinal simulcast with NBC and one men’s semifinal.
ESPN’s decision to drop out was due to ratings which were low and the fact that its studio programming of First Take and others did better. Last year, ESPN2 averaged 267,000 viewers for the French. That was an improvement from 2014 which had a low of 233,000 viewers, but still was off from a three-year high of 298,000 in 2013.
It means that ESPN can no longer promote itself as the Grand Slam network, but it continues to own rights to the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, all of which are aired from beginning to end on the Worldwide Leader’s Family of Networks.
The French is the only tournament that remains on broadcast television as NBC airs weekend coverage plus one men’s and women’s semifinal along with the men’s and women’s finals.
Tennis Channel’s on-air team in the past has included veteran tennis broadcaster Bill Macatee, Ted Robinson, Mary Carillo, Ian Eagle, Martina Navratilova, Rennae Stubbs, Jim Courrier, Lindsay Davenport and Tracy Austin. It will make an announcement on its 2016 broadcast team in May.
For Tennis Channel which has struggled to pick up cable providers and subscribers, having exclusive rights to the French will give it some leverage in May as tennis fans will want to watch the matches. Whether this will be enough to convince the providers to remove Tennis Channel from dreaded sports tiers and place it on basic packages will be the million dollar question.