NBC graphic of the French Open Credit: NBC

Back in the day, NBC Sports was a force in televising tennis.

It was the home of Wimbledon for 42 years (or as the tournament likes to dub itself, “The Championships”). In 1979, NBC broke the mold and put the Wimbledon men’s final live at 9 a.m., branding it Breakfast at Wimbledon (a funny story on that at the end). Sports televised in the morning in America were revolutionary and simply unheard of.

But by 2011, NBC’s frequent use of tape delays, which infuriated the All England Lawn Tennis Club, allowed ESPN to swoop in and claim Wimbledon from the Peacock channel. ESPN also has rights to the U.S. and Australian Opens, while pretty much everything else in the sport is on Tennis Channel. 

So why does NBC soldier on with the French Open, the bulk of which is broadcast on Tennis Channel?

As with everything now, the dance between different outlets and linear vs. streaming can be maddening.

I was at a tennis facility for a youth tournament Sunday and NBC was on for the French Open. However, at 3 p.m., coverage switched over exclusively to Peacock, so a golf tournament entertained–well not really–the tennis crowd killing time between matches. Someone said ‘Turn on Tennis Channel,’ and I tried to explain NBC had the rights, but then had to explain why it wasn’t on NBC.

With only a handful of matches across any non-Olympic year–NBC and Peacock televise the summer Games and its tennis tourney–what does the French Open bring to NBC?

Are tennis fans really going to subscribe to Peacock for a few night matches once a year?

To keep fans signed up for streaming services, there needs to be consistency. Peacock has that throughout the year with the EPL, college football, and many other sports, but it’s hard to see tennis driving any massive subscriber growth. And if NBC gets the NBA and has some of the later playoff games, scheduling conflicts could sprout when the French Open is on.

I had heard years ago that NBC, which Comcast owns, primarily saw the French Open as a good hospitality opportunity—an opportunity to take VIP clients across the ocean for some glad-handing and tennis-watching in Paris.

A spokesman for NBC disagreed, writing, “There is some hospitality there, but the event is not a hospitality play for us.”

He made the following points: 

  • NBC has broadcast the event since 1975 (except for three years on CBS).
  • The French Open is the only Grand Slam with finals on broadcast TV over the last decade.
  • The French Open fits into the second quarter “Championship Season” schedule, which includes Triple Crown horse races, The Players Championship in golf, the Premier League season finale, the Tour de France, and the Indy 500.
  • Beginning in 2021, Peacock has done well as the exclusive home of some night sessions from Paris (thanks to the new roof and lights on the two main courts)

Patrick Crakes, a sports media consultant, doesn’t see anything wrong with NBC holding onto the French broadcasting rights.

“In particular if they have the established sponsors on board,” he wrote in a text. “Also, it’s possible that pay-TV distributors are crediting the French Open on pay TV and (retransmission) fees a little bit. So, if it’s helping to drive revenue and it fills a programming niche with diverse high-quality events, why mess with it?”

If you’re a tennis fan, you mess with it because trying to find the French Open between Tennis Channel, NBC and Peacock is a challenge. Matches can switch mid-stream (sorry, could not resist) and get kicked to Peacock from NBC. Tennis Channel long ago lobbied the French Tennis Federation that the situation was bad for tennis fans, but in the end, the FFT went with the bigger check for the business end of the Slam.

Now for that Breakfast at Wimbledon story. The All England Club agreed to the NBC idea, but it had a strict policy that play began at 2 p.m. BST, or 9 a.m. ET. This posed a problem for NBC because it needed 10 minutes to explain this new concept to viewers. 

One of NBC’s announcers then was the agent Donald Dell, whose client Roscoe Tanner was in the final (obvious conflicts have long been tolerated in the sport). So at NBC’s behest, Dell asked his client to stall in the locker room when the steward came to get Tanner and Bjorn Borg. Tanner proceeded to lock himself in a bathroom and feign, well, bathroom noises. The ruse worked, NBC had its 10 minutes, and Breakfast at Wimbledon was born.

Alas, Tanner lost in five sets.

About Daniel Kaplan

Daniel Kaplan has been covering the business of sports for more than two decades. A proud founding reporter of SportsBusiness Journal, he spent the last four years at The Athletic.