ESPN Outbids NBC for Wimbledon Rights Package

12-year pact pushes marquee tennis tourney to cable

ESPN on Tuesday will announce it has wrapped a deal with the All England Club for the media rights to Wimbledon.

While ESPN currently is the cable home to the tournament, the full-package agreement strips NBC of the broadcast rights, ending the network’s 43-year relationship with Wimbledon.

NBC Sports confirmed that ESPN was willing to put more dollars on the table. “While we would have liked to have continued our relationship, we were simply outbid,” a spokesperson said.

NBC’s recent four-year, $52 million deal expired Sunday, July 3, after Novak Djokovic defeated defending champ Rafael Nadal in four sets.

Terms of the 12-year pact were not disclosed, although the deal will move all live coverage of Wimbledon to cable for the first time. That said, some tape-delayed matches will air on ABC, including replays of the men’s and women’s finals. The broadcaster will also air a three-hour highlight show on the middle Sunday of the tournament.

“We are proud to have been a partner of the All England Club the past nine years and are thrilled to be given continuing responsibility for honoring Wimbledon’s rich tradition,” said ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer. “Over the next 12 years, we’ll work closely together to move coverage of this great event forward.”

At present, it’s uncertain if the Tennis Channel will continue to telecast its Wimbledon slate; while the net’s rights expired over the weekend, it is looking to re-up its TV deal.

“We’ve still got some conversations to have with them,” said Ian Ritchie, chief executive of the All England Club. “They’ve been a very good partner that we’ve dealt with over the last few years, and we would hope to see if we can find a continuing arrangement with them. But that’s still got a little bit of work to do.”

While ratings for the 2011 finals were delayed by the holiday, advertising rates for NBC’s broadcasts were robust, as the network commanded between $75,000 and $125,000 for a 30-second spot. The men’s and women’s finals account for approximately $20 million in ad revenue.

With the new deal in place, ESPN now boasts the exclusive rights to two of the four major tennis tournaments (Wimbledon and the Australian Open), and partial rights to the others (French Open and U.S. Open).

CBS’ current four-year, $145 million to broadcast the U.S. Open expires at the close of this year’s tournament. ESPN2 and Tennis Channel share cable rights to the Flushing Meadows event.

If Wimbledon isn’t exactly a ratings juggernaut—deliveries have fallen steadily since the 1980 tournament, which was capped by the superb Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe final and averaged some 8.5 million viewers—ESPN’s desire to show up NBC cannot be underestimated. Comcast’s eagerness to develop Versus as a competitor to ESPN has ruffled some feathers, largely because a viable challenge to ESPN’s hegemony can only give the cable operator some leverage when it negotiates carriage with Bristol.

In a head-to-head battle, it’s still not much of a matchup. Both ESPN and spinoff ESPN2 reach more than 100 million viewers, while Versus passes approximately 75 million homes. In the second quarter of 2011, ESPN drew an average prime-time audience of 1.71 million viewers, of which 816,000 were members of the core TV demo. In the same period, Versus served up 567,000 total viewers and 300,000 adults 18-49.

At $4.40 per subscriber per month, ESPN charges the priciest carriage fee. Versus commands around 30 cents a head. Bristol scooped up $1.48 billion in ad sales revenue last year, while Versus took in around $95 million.

“We are cognizant of the fact that NBC-Comcast is a formidable competitor and will be at the table,” said ESPN executive vice president, content, John Skipper. “We respect what they do, we’re cognizant that they’re there and they’re formidable. But it doesn’t really change the nature of what we do.”