ESPN Shows Tennis Love, Picks Up U.S. Open

ESPN has picked up the rights to televise the U.S. Open, signing a six-year deal with the United States Tennis Association valued at approximately $135 million to $140 million.

USA Network, which has been the cable home of the U.S. Open for the last 25 years, will close out its stewardship of the tournament this summer, having decided that the event no longer played a part in its prime-time programming strategy.

Jeff Gaspin, president and COO of the Universal Television Group, told Mediaweek that while the U.S. Open is a marquee sporting event, it wreaked havoc with USA’s summer schedule. “We love the event, we love to go to the event, but it interrupts our summer lineup,” Gaspin said, adding that the third quarter is when USA puts up big ratings numbers with its drama original series.

“We’ve made adjustments over the years, but it’s just an awkward scheduling situation for us,” Gaspin said.

NBC Universal may also have been unwilling to up the ante on its existing contract with the USTA, which was priced at $22 million per year. Sources said that tennis’ governing body was able to secure at least that amount from ESPN, which accounts for the price tag attached to the new rights pact.

The deal brings tennis’ fourth Grand Slam event to ESPN, which jointly holds the rights to the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon with Tennis Channel. Per terms of the deal, Tennis Channel will televise 60 hours of live U.S. Open matches.

As is the case with all recent sports-rights deals, the ESPN contract covers all linear and digital platforms, including ESPN2, ESPN Classic and ESPN Deportes, as well as the ESPN portfolio of online platforms. ESPN also secured rights to distribute Open matches via video-on-demand and mobile services.

“Tennis has provided many memorable moments in ESPN history, and to finally acquire the excitement and drama of the U.S. Open is a crowning achievement, truly making ESPN2 `The Grand Slam Network,'” said John Skipper, executive vp, content, ESPN. “The sport is a perfect fit for our growing digital businesses.”

While the cable rights to the Open will change hands in 2009, broadcast is nailed down through 2015. Last May, CBS and the USTA hammered out a new six-year rights deal, one that decreased the broadcaster’s upfront cash commitment while opening up a new revenue-sharing front that will find CBS paying out a portion of its ad sales dollars to the association.