Rights fees are set to rise

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Tiger Woods is credited with driving PGA Tour TV-rights fees up nearly 50% to $850 million over four years. Now, tennis' flamboyant Williams sisters, a resurgent Jennifer Capriati and heartthrob Anna Kournikova are expected to propel an increase in cable-rights fees for the U.S. Open.

USA Network has carried the Open since 1984, but its six-year deal, estimated to be worth $12 million to $14 million a year, expires after the 2002 tournament. Talks on a new deal-USA has an exclusive negotiating period after this year's event-are expected to begin soon. And the United States Tennis Association is likely to ride the popularity of the women's game to a 15% to 20% increase in rights fees for the package. The men's game, while still benefiting from the popularity of Andre Agassi, has lost some luster as other American stars have aged and lesser-known players from other countries have moved up the rankings.

CBS, which holds broadcast rights, is in the middle of a five-year deal for which it pays an estimated $26 million a year.

A testament to the hubbub surrounding the women's game is CBS's decision to carry the women's final in prime time for the first time. Bad news for CBS and USA came, however, when Ms. Kournikova withdrew due to injury, though she rarely makes it deep into a major tournament. "The women give us a large number of marquee players and a lot of those are Americans, so that really helps," said Rob Correa, senior VP-programming at CBS Sports.

Commercial time is priced higher for the women's final. Scott McGraw, senior VP-sports sales at CBS said the women's final is in the $190,000 to $200,000 range for a 30 second spot, while the men's final (which takes place in the late afternoon) was garnering $160,000. But media buyers said demand was light and a women's final spot is in the $150,000 range compared with $110,000 for the men.

The expected increase in the cable-rights package is somewhat modest when compared to recent sports-rights battles, in part because of the economy. A USA spokesman declined to comment on the rights negotiations, but said the network intends to keep the event. "It's a very important property for USA cable," said Neil Pilson, former head of CBS Sports and now an industry consultant. "I would think they would make every effort to retain their position."

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