On Tuesday night in Paris, in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic contested yet another epic contest in their immortal rivalry. It was a thrilling affair full of ferocious offensive firepower 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 spoiled, entitled lot of followers of any sport ever, having been gifted the remarkable array of matches between Nadal, Djokovic and, of course, Roger Federer. For nearly 20 years whenever one of them is playing in a major tournament, it’s been appointment viewing.
Yet for many fans in the United States during this French Open, there has been a bit of confusion and frustration when attempting to figure out where exactly to view the matches. And even when it was clear which network would be broadcasting the event on a given day, many millions of Americans were still left out due to limitations within their cable/streaming TV lineup.
Most of the matches during the French Open have been carried by Tennis Channel, including the Nadal-Djokovic encounter. For the more serious tennis fan, having Tennis Channel at home is a must and since the channel’s inception it’s been an extraordinary network that fills almost all the fan’s needs with comprehensive coverage of most tour events.
Tennis Channel is now in approximately 60m households, according to the latest estimates, and that is indeed a sizable number. The network has seen tremendous growth. But that’s still 20m to 30m fewer households than ESPN reaches (the network which carries wall-to-wall coverage of the other three slams). Which means many millions of casual tennis fans in the United States were robbed of watching the brilliance of Nadal and Djokovic on Tuesday, as well as the all-American women’s quarter-final between teenage sensation Coco Gauff and former US Open champion Sloane Stephens. Shouldn’t a goal of tennis and other niche sports to bring in the more casual sports fans? It’s crucial to the growth of the sport to showcase the best it has to offer – and it clearly doesn’t get any better than Nadal v Djokovic.
Even more frustrating, several day and night sessions were carried exclusively via streaming on Peacock, the NBC-owned streaming service, which counts 13m paid subscribers, a fraction of those reached by either Tennis Channel or ESPN. Among Peacock’s offerings was the fourth-round match between Carlos Alcaraz and Karen Khachanov. No player not named Nadal received as much attention during the lead-up to the French than Carlos Alcaraz who, until he lost to Alexander Zverev on Tuesday, was among the pre-tournament favorites. But since relatively few consumers have Peacock, many were deprived of seeing Alcaraz and others. Contrast the situation with tennis programming in Europe, where most of the French Open is broadcast over one channel: Eurosport.
This issue cuts to the core of a central dilemma when trying to increase a sport’s popularity: namely, shouldn’t the powers at be within a sport’s governing body make an effort to ensure that they can get the most eyes on their sport at any given time? This is especially relevant in the United States where, after years of slow tennis growth and a paucity of high-ranked American players, the country is in the middle of a minor tennis boom. Participation has soared since the onset of the Covid pandemic with a 46% increase in dollars spent on racquets in 2021 and nearly 25m Americans having taken the court, according to the Tennis Industry Association. Further, this splintered media system is showcasing corporate avarice, forcing the consumer to constantly spend more money to tweak their channel lineup. Yes, the fan has greater access than ever, but at what price?
This leads to an even larger, more existential topic. As a populace we are offered more choices than ever, a bewildering supply of options in almost every facet of life. And no more so than in the media universe. But there’s a rather nasty irony involved; even though we have an infinite number of possibilities available to us, there are fewer unifying events because everything is so splintered and dispersed. One is constantly preached to that we inhabit a polarized era, that we’re a divided nation that shares different values depending on where one lives. The one area where there is still a sense of universal, shared experience is via sports.
For this weekend at least, tennis viewing will be available to everyone since NBC will be broadcasting the semi-finals and finals. The next step is fixing everything before it.