S.L. Price, journalist for Sports Illustrated, calls the Grandstand court the greatest venue at the annual event, and described the Taylor Dent-Ivan Navarro match held there this past Saturday as the most exciting match he has ever witnessed in his 19 years covering the U.S. Open.
When I saw Taylor Dent's name in this year's draw, I shrugged and wondered where he had been. Son of professional tennis player Phil Dent of Australia, the American-born Taylor had showed promise with a strong serve and volley game and a clear lack of conditioning required to meet up with his potential. He just sort of faded out of the picture.
Turns out, he retired in 2005 after his third back surgery left him in a full body cast. Turns out he put himself through hell to get healthy enough to throw his back back into the ring at this year's U.S. Open. He then turns in a performance for the ages in the second round, taking a five-set thriller over an equally worthy Spaniard named Ivan Navarro. The rowdy Grandstand crowd had Dent's back and he rode theirs through this grinding four-and-a-half hour emotional roller coaster. They cheered his name through the ups and downs, clapped with a feverish purpose, and then combusted into a spontaneous chant of "USA, USA" when he won. After consoling his opponent at the net, Dent then did something never seen before. He grabbed the microphone from the Chair Umpire and spoke hoarsely and directly back to the Grandstand crowd. "Thank you -- you were unbelievable," he said.
It was unbelievable tennis tennis fans will talk about for years. Equally unbelievable is that the majority of the match could only be seen by those in attendance or visiting USOpen.org.
ESPN had the television coverage rights that day and decided to show its arrogance, an unhealthy reliance on the :30 commercial, and a lack of understanding -- or worse, concern -- for its audience. ESPN served up three consecutive scripted interviews accompanied by three separate commercial pods, instead of switching over to live coverage of the drama unfolding on the Grandstand court. The network finally picked up the Dent Navarro match at 5 all in the fifth set. In typical ESPN fashion, they showed up late to the party and then acted like they threw it.
For tennis fans, it was too late. Their needs had already been served well through a publishing partnership between IBM and the USTA (United States Tennis Association) to produce USOpen.org, which offers continuous live coverage (with credible announcers) from whatever court the user chooses. The lucky ones chose the Grandstand this past Saturday. And therein lies the real opportunity for online video: be where television can't, do it better than they can, and then watch the needle really move.
As an industry, we are often guilty of selling smoke with mirrors -- and online video is a prime suspect the way it's sold now. For example, video consumption figures cited to support growth claims include an elephant-sized percentage of porn and other related content that could never cuddle with an advertiser's brand. And the remaining video content advertisers are supposed to fawn over often fails to deliver "a compelling story" needed to capture truly engaged attention, as one industry executive astutely pointed out to me.
I also think television is truly beatable for the first time, but to do so the online video folks have to change their battle plans. They need to attack by collecting rights to (or segments of) live events niche groups of people passionately care about, and then "broadcast" uninterrupted tactfully sponsored coverage. That's a much easier sell than what they are asking advertisers to buy now.
I attended the U.S. Open last week as well, with a dear friend in from Seattle along with his girlfriend, who happens to manage a sizeable advertising budget with a high percentage allocated online. As we walked the grounds I asked her, "What stops YouTube from broadcasting the SuperBowl?" She responded quickly, "They can't. The NFL would stop them because they don't have the rights."
Seems to me YouTube's parent company can afford to pay for the rights to "broadcast" live events. And when they choose to do so, online video will become less about video -- and traditional publishing broadcasters will become less of a lock for ad dollars spent against the backdrop of sight, sound and emotion.