ESPN Unifies Wimbledon Coverage; Will Others Follow?

Tuning In: Showing a Contest on One Broadcaster May Become More Crucial

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The biggest events are supposed to play out on Big TV, or so we've believed for the last several years. Now, we're not quite as sure.

Despite the exodus to cable of a healthy chunk of NCAA basketball, "Monday Night Football," a sliver of post-season Major League Baseball and the various college football bowl games, we always thought we could rest comfortably in the notion that the filet mignon of sports events -- the Super Bowl, Final Four, the Olympics, the World Series, the NBA Finals and the Wimbledon finals -- would all remain on broadcast.

Now cable is starting to gobble the top cuts of beef as well.

Raphael Nadal, like NBC, just suffered a Wimbledon loss.
Raphael Nadal, like NBC, just suffered a Wimbledon loss.

ESPN's announcement that it had persuaded the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club to move the rights to the Wimbledon finals from NBC, where it has been broadcast for more than 40 years, to ESPN in 2012 is a telling sign of where TV sports are really headed. It's not just that cable is increasingly able to digest the economic stresses of televising such events, although that 's certainly true. While money played its role in All England's decision, other factors arguably carried as much weight.

"We felt it was very important to have a single narrative across the two weeks of the championship, and we believe we have achieved that by this deal," Ian Ritchie, chief executive of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, said in a conference call with reporters today. "If you couple that with the production strength and promotional strength, particularly across a multiplatform delivery, as we have with ESPN, the story of the championships will reach the maximum number of people." He also suggested ESPN's ability to broadcast more matches live as they happen, rather than via tape-delay, also proved tempting.

ESPN has long broadcast the earlier part of Wimbledon, signing off after running 100 hours on its TV networks and another 650 hours on ESPN3.com, its broadband channel. Now it will have the whole thing to itself.

Championship games don't take place in a vacuum. There's an entire season or set of preliminary matches that take place that are of equal importance to most fans. Dividing events among different media broadcasters might just shave crucial momentum off a sport at at time when keeping the greater mass of consumers interested has become much more difficult. In that vein, isn't it silly to have the first part of post-season baseball on TBS when the later part and the World Series run on Fox?

There are reasons why sports gets divvied up this way. Sports rights, already costly, are only getting more expensive as Americans demonstrate a willingness to watch live and sit through the ads in the process, a feat they're less eager to perform for dramas and comedies. To keep Wall Street happy -- and the rest of their businesses intact -- Big Media has had to share some of its bigger sports events with cable. Most networks also have other programming competing for airtime.

So it would be nice to air baseball's entire post-season on Fox, but the fact is that the games cost a ton and hinder the network's ability to launch its fall schedule.

Or at least that 's the way the model has shaped up lately. The NFL is out there right now selling an eight-game package to yet another outlet, further dividing an already splintered season.

But the All England Lawn Tennis Club's words suggest concern that split coverage could blunt an event's success. And keeping everything intact will only become more crucial as consumers get their entertainment video from any number of sources. Without a unified promotional front, the message might get lost. That's why CBS and Time Warner 's Turner created a joint unit of sorts to oversee everything about its new shared telecasts of NCAA men's basketball, from opening games to the Final Four. For less sprawling sports events than March Madness, organizers may increasingly just rather find a single partner.

Whose serve is it?

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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