ESPN's upfront presentation on Tuesday had more soccer, more football, and more SportsCenter, but the Worldwide Leader refused to explain the most puzzling sport on its moneymaking lineup of contracts: tennis. ESPN president John Skipper teased a rumored announcement about the network becoming the exclusive home of the non-stop U.S. Open ratings machine, but he stopped short of confirming it: Even at the biggest programming reveal of the year, Skipper would only welcome competition from other sports networks (like the new Fox Sports 1) and reiterate how crucial all those live broadcast rights continue to be to ESPN's success. "I like our hand," he told the crowd of ad executives and reporters.
Sports Business Journal reported that ESPN plans to pay the United States Tennis Association $60 million per year starting in 2015 to air the Open, but that deal clearly wasn't finalized in time. CBS is still in talks with the USTA to obtain some airing rights, considering they've been the tournament's main home since 1968, but ESPN is committed to broadcasting the semi-finals and finals.
The biggest question is how ESPN plans to balance all that tennis with network commitments to college football and the NFL. The final rounds of U.S. Open usually coincide with the opening of the college football season, and that juggling act could be holding up the contract. At the time of that potential 2015 deal, the Open finals will go back to airing on Sunday nights, when they've traditionally aired. They're airing on Mondays for the next two years because they've been delayed due to bad weather too many times of late. But ESPN can't do a U.S. Open final on Monday night, even if it has to be delayed by the weather, because they're already committed to Monday Night Football. And ESPN isn't pre-empting Monday Night Football for tennis, even though the men's and women's finals brought in 16.2 million and 17.7 million viewers, respectively, last year. That means the match would get bumped to ESPN2, or to Tuesday, which is something the USTA has to consider when finalizing their end of any deal.
At the upfront presentation, ESPN did confirm a new state-of-the-art 10,000 square foot studio for SportsCenter that reportedly cost over $125 million. (It's kind of ugly.) There was also some very big football news announced: ESPN is launching a new show dedicated to covering global and domestic football leagues on August 11 called ESPNFC. Just to be clear: We mean football as in soccer. Were you expecting the NFL? There's a new show for that, too. And a new slate of those great 30 for 30 films is due in the fall, including one on the famous Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard "No Mas" fight.
Stay tuned to The Atlantic Wire's upfront central for more, including ESPN's sister network, ABC, and its big upfront presentation later today. (The schedule's due out any minute now.)
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