While perusing through my Twitter feed the other day, I was surprised to read from Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon Wertheim, in response to a reader’s letter, that in his opinion the biggest issue facing tennis today, is the lack of match coverage on television.
Wertheim’s discussion was due in part to a reader’s letter bemoaning the fact that the recent Shanghai Rolex Masters was not aired on ESPN here in the States. Wertheim cited recent lack of coverage of Indian Wells and Miami along with the debacle that was the U.S. Open Men’s Final as part of his argument that both tours and the networks have to figure out a way to improve coverage, and not just for the Slams. But to blame the networks alone doesn’t account for what I see is a bigger problem – why aren’t more viewers tuning in, despite this being a “golden age” for the sport, “GOATS” and all?
Why is it that during this current “golden age” of Roger Federer and now Rafael Nadal chasing after “GOAT” status on the men’s side along with the inspiring, if sometimes tumultuous, era of the Williams sisters in the women’s game, that TV ratings keep going down rather than up? Is it because despite all of the accomplishments of the above and their fellow pros, it’s not enough to keep viewers interested? (For this article when I say viewers, I mean casual tennis fans, not diehards who would watch the opening round of the Tashkent Open without a second thought).
In his response to the reader, Wertheim says, “Until the sport draws bigger ratings, improved treatment can’t be justified. Yet it’s hard to see how the sport will improve its viewership, so long as TV sabotages its growth.” This is where I disagree. Television never sabotages anyone or anything as long as there is demand. If millions of people start craving wall-to-wall coverage of fly fishing, for example, television will find a way to make it happen.
Case in point. When Serena and Venus Williams ended up meeting each other for the first time in a Grand Slam final at the 2001 U.S. Open, it became the biggest story not just in tennis, but for all sports that summer. CBS, to meet demand, moved the final from Saturday afternoon to primetime on Saturday night. That match, despite being a sloppy, lopsided win for the older sister in 69 minutes, earned the network its best rating for a final since 1995.
But a prime spot on the free TV dial on a Saturday night has not yielded the same results for a Women’s Finals since ’01 except for those when either a Williams, Lindsay Davenport or Maria Sharapova challenged for the title. There’s value in arguments that say Americans only like to watch Americans, but I think the biggest issue is that the rest of the WTA’s big stars (Ana Ivanovic, Justine Henin, and even the adopted “American” Kim Clijsters) have yet to capture wider attention aside from diehard fans.
And how about them “GOATS”? Despite continuing to earn accolades as possibly the best players ever, both Federer and Nadal have been part of some of the lowest rated Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals in the last ten years. Even though their epic ’08 Wimbledon final earned the highest ratings since 2002, just having them show up in a final is not enough to generate big numbers. Even though I’m sure a “Fedal” final this year in New York would have done well, the numbers would not have been “off the charts” as many predicted only due to the fact that both men just don’t play each other in big finals often enough. A rivalry in any sport has to be consistent for it to seep into the radars of casual fans to tune in for it. Just saying “Federer and Nadal are on TV. Watch it!” isn’t enough.
So why am I’m going on and on about ratings for Grand Slam finals when the original impetus for this discussion was about coverage for the Shanghai Masters? The reality of a fragmented Internet/cell phone media landscape aside, because the argument continues to be that for tennis to grow as a sport, it needs to be broadcast on one central network, preferably cable, so that fans can find matches with ease and watch them in entirety without worrying about time limits or breaking away for local news. And I’m all for that. But my worry is that even though that has to come to pass for the most part with ESPN and the Tennis Channel, the ratings haven’t exactly jumped through the roof.
What’s going to happen when Federer and the Williams sisters retire? Who among the younger players on both tours will step into fill that void and do so on a consistent basis in big and small events? Nadal certainly can but who else on the ATP Tour has his starpower? Caroline Wozniacki, now No. 1, is charming, and most importantly, consistent week in and week out. But who among her peers can challenge her enough to create a genuine rivalry that’s been lacking for so long on the WTA Tour?
The sport’s biggest issue is the need for more stars who translate worldwide and also have consistent rivalries with each other that even passive tennis viewers can invest in. And I know many will say that the tours have too many good players now to have that happen, but consistency is what television likes to promote (and sell) and consistency is what viewers like too.
Will all that happen? That’s up to the players and the tours to decide. Not television.