Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Monday here at The Changeover. You can find past editions of The Backboard here.
The Perils of Watching Tennis on TV in the United States
Yesterday was a dark day for the sport of tennis in the United States. It’s difficult to pretend otherwise, really. Below is a rundown of what transpired.
For Sundays’ men’s final between Andy Murray and David Ferrer, I decided against doing a LiveAnalysis post in favor of another foray into the Forehand and Backhand Efficiency Ratings posts that I’ve been obsessed with this past week. The reason behind this decision was rather simple: I saw Murray finish off Richard Gasquet in impressive style, and given David Ferrer’s struggles against Tommy Haas, as well as his bad track record in finals against the Big Four, I figured we were in store for a quick, straightforward affair.
Hence, I woke up at 10 a.m. Central Time, knowing that I had half an hour to get my Excel sheet ready so I could capture Andy Murray’s forehands and backhands. I knew I had to tweak it so i could capture forehand and backhand unforced errors, too, because the final would not be available on TennisTV, which provides those stats during their streams of Masters 1000 matches. CBS owns the rights to the men’s final and had it geoblocked for TennisTV users in the United States (interestingly enough, CBS also owns the rights to the women’s final, but that match was not blacked out on TennisTV. Go figure). Ferrer-Murray wouldn’t be available on ESPN3.com, either, even though the online streaming arm of ESPN had shown the Masters 1000 feed for the entire tournament up to that point.
As the start time for the match was getting closer, I tuned in to CBS. I checked the cable guide to make sure that the match would start at 10:30, but found that the tennis would only start at 11 a.m. From 10:30 to 11:00 a.m. CT my local CBS affiliate was showing something called “Winning Walk – Scripture-based sermons.”
This is a good time to remember that it was CBS which requested the strange start time of 11:30 a.m. ET for the men’s final in order to avoid having tennis run into their NCAA men’s basketball tournament coverage. Tip-off for the first game of the day, between the University of Michigan and the University of Florida, was set for 2:23 p.m. ET.
Anyway, let’s go back to the central time zone, where I live. Houston is not only the home for an ATP 250 event, the Men’s Clay Court Championships (which I’ll be covering for The Changeover), but is also the fourth largest city in the United States. Presumably, those two facts would lead you to believe that there are many tennis fans who live in the largest city in the state of Texas.
However, just as Andy Murray and David Ferrer started their match in Miami, all the Houstonians who tuned in to CBS could see on their TVs was a man dressed in a suit delivering a sermon.
Turns out Houston wasn’t the only big market that was blocked from seeing the match:
@juanjo_sports My CBS in DC is showing “Capitol Gains.”
— Joe Fleming (@ByJoeFleming) March 31, 2013
Let’s now pause for a second and remember that the main reason that a tennis event would partner with a major network in the United States is for exposure and the allure of catching those pesky casual fans. Well, those potential casual fans in two of the biggest TV markets in the United States couldn’t watch the beginning of a Masters 1000 final between two top 5 players.
At 11:00 a.m. CT, the sermon ended on my TV, and we jumped straight into the third game of Murray-Ferrer. What had we missed? Not much: the underdog from Spain had gone up a break already. I sure didn’t need to see that, right? As for me, I now had 3 entire games where I couldn’t count any backhands or forehands for the piece I wanted to write (thanks to TennisTV’s “catch-up” system, I watched the beginning of the match hours later and wrote the piece on Murray’s Efficiency Ratings anyway).
I’d love to know how many “casual” fans kept their TVs on CBS when a tennis match suddenly popped in, without introduction or context. Probably not many.
Regardless, the match went on. I started counting forehands and backhands, Ferrer took the first set, Murray took the second, and six straight breaks of serve opened a tense, nervy, and long third set. And as this decider wore on, people started to wonder what would happen if this match somehow encroached on the sacred tip-off time of Michigan versus Florida.
Murray served for the match at 5-4, and it seemed like the match was destined to end just in time to have a traditional CBS-mandated fast and furious trophy ceremony. But David Ferrer broke Murray’s serve, and the match went on. Then, at 6-5 in that third set came an incredible announcement:
If this Masters 1000 final were to go to a tiebreaker, it would not be shown on CBS. It would be shown on The Tennis Channel.
Let’s pause for a second to realize what this means. CBS is a major, non-cable, station. The Tennis Channel is a cable network that can only be found in the special Sports Tier of only a few cable providers. As far as I know, the Tennis Channel is not part of any standard cable package. You need to pay extra to get it.
So if casual fans were intrigued in the outcome of a Masters 1000 final, they had to 1) have cable, 2) have the right provider and 3) have a subscription to the appropriate sports tier.
David Ferrer had a match point at 6-5 on Murray’s serve, but couldn’t capitalize on it when a huge Murray forehand barely caught the baseline. Murray held, and on we went to the tiebreaker.
I quickly changed channels, and the last visual I had from CBS was David Ferrer receiving tennis balls from the ball boys, since he was due to start the tiebreaker with his serve. What did I see when my TV jumped to The Tennis Channel?
A commercial for a credit card company. Prompting Brad Gilbert to tweet this:
This is unbeliavable. Tennis channel not ready for final tie break.
— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) March 31, 2013
As for those who don’t have access to the Tennis Channel, this was their scenario:
Murray saves match point and holds. Tiebreak to decide it. CBS bids adieu and everyone w/o Tennis Channel is left scrambling for a stream.
— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) March 31, 2013
Once the Tennis Channel actually started showing the tiebreaker, we had already missed a pivotal first point: after a long rally, David Ferrer’s point-ending forehand clipped the net and bounced on his own side of the court, giving Andy Murray a minibreak. The Scot would never relinquish that lead.
The tiebreaker moved along, Murray won it 7-1, and the match was over.
The tennis match concludes at 2:23 pm, but CBS couldn’t be bothered to stick with eight points. Whatever, tennis on TV in the United States.
— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) March 31, 2013
And the reactions about the recent travesty were immediate, naturally:
Shame on CBS.
— Mardy Fish (@MardyFish) March 31, 2013
Would CBS have cut away from the third set tiebreaker if Mardy Fish, an American, had been involved? I say yes.
If it goes to TBCBS are going to stop coverage. Joke, joke , joke. And this is the US Open broadcaster? Please
— Richard Ingham Evans (@Ringham7) March 31, 2013
And tennis fans in America are again reminded of the sports’s B list status #CBS
— Jenn Goldberg (@jenninlaca) March 31, 2013
As for the international perspective on the whole fiasco:
Ok. CBS ended tennis Miami final coverage at 6 all third set to amateur basketball. Okie dokie..
— ivo karlovic (@ivokarlovic) March 31, 2013
— Sergiy Stakhovsky (@Stako_tennis) March 31, 2013
Now, something truly hilarious happened during the trophy ceremony. The Miami tournament director started his speech by thanking CBS. Yep, you read that correctly. This, naturally, prompted the following:
“Special thanks to CBS our long time network partner” – who didn’t care to show the end of the tournament.
— Nadal News (@nadalnews) March 31, 2013
Miami tournament director starts by thanking CBS. Don’t tell him they cut away 15 minutes ago.
— Ben Bergman (@thebenbergman) March 31, 2013
And then, the ceremony ended, and a lot of us turned back to CBS to watch Michigan-Florida.
Here is one question that I think will help guide my argument regarding this whole debacle: did CBS, a major network, do anything truly surprising during this broadcast?
I’d argue that it would’ve been much more surprising if all of the local CBS affiliates showed the beginning of the match, and if CBS somehow bumped the beginning of a college basketball game by a few minutes, or – gasp – let the basketball game start on time and miss maybe 10 minutes of it.
Hence, I actually agree with Brad Gilbert here:
@bgtennisnation sorry but want to see the damage with Sony, and others that also spent millions in CBs and bye, bye
— EmilioSanchezVicario (@EmilioSVicario) March 31, 2013
But I also agree with Emilio Sánchez-Vicario. Unfortunately for those who invested in the Miami tournament, this is a question about money:
CBS pays $25 million annually for the US Open. With Turner, they pay $771 million annually for men’s NCAA Tournament rights.
— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) March 31, 2013
Note that the $25 million is only for the US Open. CBS only shows the men and women’s final of Miami. You can probably guess that the fee for those two matches is dwarfed by the $25 million paid for the US Open, which itself is dwarfed by the huge sum CBS and Turner paid for the rights to broadcast a culturally iconic sporting event in this country, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. There’s also this:
Ads selling for the tennis match before Michigan-Florida were $5,000. Commercials airing now cost about 60 times that.
— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) March 31, 2013
Now, don’t mistake any of the above for a defense of CBS. My main point with them is simple: they are who they are, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us that the Columbia Broadcasting System did what they did yesterday.
The whole point of this column is to ask why tennis, in this case, the Miami event, would sell the rights to its most precious products to a broadcaster who doesn’t have tennis as a priority. To a broadcaster who didn’t care to show the final set tiebreaker between two elite players who were battling to win a Masters 1000 title.
Why does tennis insist on relegating itself to second-class status with the media behemoths in the year 2013?
It seems to me that the mentality of the tennis establishment in the United States is still anchored somewhere in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, there was Jimmy Connors, there was John McEnroe, there was Pete Sampras, there was Andre Agassi. Tennis was a big deal – it made it onto the major networks at a time when cable was far from mainstream. Tennis even showed up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Things have changed. Tennis is now a niche sport, left behind by the NFL, the NBA and who knows what else. But similar to a disgraced aristocrat, it still sees itself as part of the elite, as part of the establishment, even though that same establishment long ago stopped taking tennis seriously.
What makes it worse is that this downtrodden aristocrat is willing to sacrifice anything in exchange for a few crumbs of attention it can get from broadcasting partners that have done plenty to suggest they don’t care for the aristocrat’s well-being.
Because cutting away from the ending of a live sporting event is the ultimate lack of disrespect to said sporting event – even if the outcome is already decided. That wasn’t even the case yesterday, as Andy Murray and David Ferrer prepared themselves to start a third set tiebreaker that would determine who got to take home a Masters 1000 title. No one really knew what would happen, and those who didn’t have the Tennis Channel as part of their cable package didn’t get to see the culmination of a big final.
So here is my message to everyone associated with tennis in the United States: you are a niche sport. And you need to embrace the niche. You need to own the niche.
Because it’s 2013. Because cable now has hundreds and hundreds of channels. Because everybody is on the internet, and more and more people watch TV on their computers. It’s not 1980. Tennis doesn’t need a mainstream big-name network anymore. Through social media and streaming, tennis has a chance to better serve their niche audience and be free of disgraceful episodes like the one that took place yesterday.
Streaming, both live and on demand, is the future. Tennis should own streaming. TennisTV is already a wonderful product (even with its nonsensical geoblocking restrictions in the US for most of the smaller events of the ATP and WTA). There are no programming issues with streaming: people watch whatever they want, for as long as they want.
How do you reach casual viewers? First, you need to start thinking of them as people who are on a laptop (or a smartphone, or a tablet) while they have the TV on. They might not even have a TV on. You can use social media. You can use online advertising. You can reach out to the people who truly love your sport, as well as pique the interest of those casual sports fans who might be intrigued by what this wonderful sport has to offer when it’s presented in all its glory.
There are ways to grow tennis in the United States. But none of them involve selling the rights to your finals to a broadcaster who will switch away from a third set tiebreaker.
Simple as that.
Tennis on television in the United States. No other sport gets treated in America the way tennis does. College softball gets more respect.
— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) March 31, 2013
Dear tennis – you want the US to take tennis seriously? Stop letting this happen.
— Nadal News (@nadalnews) March 31, 2013
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
- Ecclestone almost took over tennis – report – worldcarfans.com
More than taking over, the trio of Bernie Ecclestone (the owner and chief decision-maker of Formula One), Ion Tiriac (of blue “clay” fame) and Boris Becker would have taken tennis and turned it into something that vaguely resembled the sport a lot of us know and love. Naturally, who knows what part of this is true, or whether this just meant the Grand Slams, since Bernie mentions that it was the ITF who “asked for too much money.” The ITF, as we know, does not control either the ATP or the WTA.
Now, don’t mistake me for someone who is against reform. I’m sure that if you’ve read some of the things I’ve been writing on this site, as well as on Twitter, you probably know that I have my own ideas about what needs to change.
Still, this casual piece of news does frighten me, because it illustrates the willingness of some power brokers to ignore the game’s tradition and essence in favor of making it more like a fast-food version of a succulent meal. We know of the many stunts Tiriac has pulled in Madrid, the worst one of which backfired so badly that it got banned by the ATP (I’m talking about the blue “clay,” of course). And while Ecclestone has arguably turned Formula 1 into a worldwide behemoth, it’s not like his reign has been free of controversy. And lest we forget, Formula 1 is one of very few sports that has commercial breaks during live action.
I’ve always thought that the tennis establishment is not very adept at thinking about new ideas to sell the great product they already have, and instead they would tinker with key aspects of the game itself in order to make it (theoretically) more marketable. And in terms of promoting their product, both tennis tours and the events they comprise have far too often taken the personality route of promoting tennis, which I think is short-sighted: stars rise and fall, and you can’t let the audience’s interest in the sport depend on a few individuals. I’ve always thought that the NFL has done a fantastic job of selling the sport rather than the personalities.
Of course, American football is a team sport and tennis is an individual sport. But any tennis fan knows that while a certain player might have drawn us in, it’s the love for the sport that makes you want to watch a match not featuring your favorite player at three in the morning, or check the scoreboard for a tiny tournament happening in some faraway place in the world. Hence, it’s time to sell that idea, instead of riding the coattails of a star that won’t be around for more than a few years.
Regardless, it’s good to know that tennis dodged a bullet by keeping these three gentlemen and their half-baked ideas away from the steering wheel of our sport.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
Carl writes for the Wall Street Journal, and he’s done some work about how tennis stats are compiled during events (among many other things, naturally). He even audited the “subjective” stats, unforced errors, winners, etc, during the past World Tour Finals as well as during some matches of the 2011 US Open. We were going back and forth about stats, and he relayed this last bit of information, which I found fascinating for a number of reasons. First, the tournaments might be the least interested party in using the great Hawk-Eye stats for the cool things a player would. What does a tournament care if the stats show that Nicolás Almagro has problematic court positioning during return games? What if they show that David Ferrer barely ever goes down-the-line with his backhand? Events don’t have much a relationship with individual players, and if they do, it’s not the kind of relationship that involves the exchange of statistical info.
This got me thinking. What if all the US events that use Hawk-Eye pooled their resources and handed them over to the USTA? An organization of that caliber has the resources to put together an analytics team that could supply the American players with interesting and useful bits of evidence-based advice, much like an NBA team’s front office would inform said team’s coaching staff of interesting developments that pop up during the analysis of their plays.
Just a thought.
Music Used to Write this Column
Via the Pitchfork App on Spotify, I discovered Mount Moriah, a band described as being part of the alt-Americana genre (whatever that means). They’re based out of Durham, North Carolina, and their second feature length album, Miracle Temple, just came out in February of this year. Why did I choose to listen to Miracle Temple? Pitchfork gave it a nice rating, and the album cover is fantastic. Sometimes, the latter criteria is all I need to listen to something.
Anyway, I’ve been listening to the album more or less nonstop for the past few days, and I agree with Pitchfork: it’s pretty darn good. It’s impeccably produced, for starters. The band comes through in a very soulful, earnest way, with a fantastic southern flavor that makes me remember North Carolina fondly (I lived in that state for four years). Heather McEntire’s voice is magnificent, and the guitar work of Jenks Miller is outstanding. It’s not surprising at all that Miracle Temple was released by famous indie label Merge – those folks have a good eye for talent.
Which brings me to the standout track of the album, one that I’ve listened to about five million times since I first gave Miracle Temple a try. It’s called “Miracle Temple Holiness,” and it’s my front-runner for Best Song of 2013 (somehow, the good people at Pitchfork wrote their entire review without mentioning this specific song at all. A small crime).
Here is the band performing this gorgeous slow-burning masterpiece somewhere in Asheville, North Carolina: