EITHERn Tuesday night in Paris, in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic participated in another epic contest in their immortal rivalry. It was a thrilling event filled with fierce offensive power and jaw-dropping defensive escapes with Nadal emerging as the victor in four grueling sets, making the Spaniard a heavy favorite to claim his 14th French Open title.
This current generation of tennis fans is perhaps the most pampered and entitled group of supporters of any sport that has ever existed, having welcomed the remarkable variety of matches between Nadal, Djokovic and of course Roger Federer. For almost 20 years, every time one of them plays in a major tournament, it has been a date to watch.
However, for many fans in the United States during this open french, there has been a bit of confusion and frustration trying to figure out where exactly to watch the matches. And even when it was clear which network would carry the event on any given day, many millions of Americans were left out due to limitations within their broadcast/cable TV lineup.
Most of the matches during the French Open have been made by Tennis Canal, including the Nadal-Djokovic encounter. For serious tennis fans, having the Tennis Channel at home is a must, and since the channel’s inception, it has been an extraordinary network that caters to almost all fan needs with comprehensive coverage of most events on tour.
The Tennis Channel is now in roughly 60 million households, according to the latest estimates, and that’s a hefty number. The network has experienced tremendous growth. But that’s still 20 million to 30 million fewer households than ESPN (the network that carries wall-to-wall coverage of the other three slams) reaches. Which means that many millions of casual tennis fans in the United States were deprived of seeing the brilliance of Nadal and Djokovic on Tuesday, as well as the US Women’s Quarterfinals between teen sensation Coco Gauff and former US Open champion Sloane Stephens. Shouldn’t a focus on tennis and other niche sports appeal to more casual sports fans? It’s crucial to the growth of the sport to showcase the best it has to offer, and clearly there is nothing better than Nadal v Djokovic.
Even more frustrating, several daytime and late-night sessions were streamed exclusively on Peacock, the NBC-owned streaming service, which has 13 million paid subscribers, a fraction of those achieved by the Tennis Channel or ESPN. Among Peacock’s offers was the fourth round match between Carlos Alcaraz and Karen Khachanov. No player not named Nadal received as much attention in the run-up to the French as Carlos Alcaraz, who, until he lost to Alexander Zverev on Tuesday, was among the pre-tournament favourites. But since relatively few consumers have Peacock, many were deprived of seeing Alcaraz et al. Compare the situation with tennis programming in Europe, where most of the French Open is broadcast on one channel: Eurosport.
This issue gets to the heart of a central dilemma when it comes to increasing the popularity of a sport: namely, shouldn’t the powers within a sport’s governing body make an effort to ensure that they can get as many eyes on their sport as possible? sport at a given time? weather? This is especially relevant in the United States where, after years of slow tennis growth and a shortage of top-ranking American players, the country is in the midst of a small tennis boom. Participation has skyrocketed since the start of the Covid pandemic with a 46% increase in dollars spent on rackets in 2021 and nearly 25 million Americans taking the court, according to the Tennis Industry Association. Furthermore, this fragmented media system is displaying corporate greed, forcing the consumer to constantly spend more money to modify their channel lineup. Yes, the fan has more access than ever, but at what price?
This leads to an even larger, more existential theme. As a population, we are offered more options than ever before, a bewildering supply of options in almost every facet of life. And no more than in the media universe. But there is a rather unpleasant irony involved; although we have an infinite number of possibilities available to us, there are fewer unifying events because everything is so fragmented and scattered. One is constantly preached that we live in a polarized age, that we are a divided nation that shares different values depending on where you live. The only area where there is still a sense of universal shared experience is through sports.
For at least this weekend, tennis viewing will be available to everyone as NBC will air the semi-finals and finals. The next step is to fix everything before.