ESPN Exits, Tennis Channel Lands Cable Rights To Grand Slam

With few Americans performing well at the French Open, ESPN decided not to renew its deal to carry the Grand Slam event. That decision allowed the fledgling Tennis Channel to land the cable rights under a nine-year deal.

The deal takes effect next year, and the cable package includes the early matches up to the fourth round. NBC retains its original broadcast portion: some weekend coverage, as well as the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals for the men and women. No financial terms were released.

ESPN, which carried it on ESPN2, had an exclusive negotiating window and could not reach a deal with the French Tennis Federation. The federation's decision to sell the cable rights to a network in only 10 million homes likely signals a lack of demand for the clay-court tournament, held at Roland Garros near Paris. It has not seen a U.S. female win singles since 2002, and a man since 1999.

However, the deal does include a provision requiring the Tennis Channel to boost its distribution in order to air matches, although specifics were not disclosed. Tennis Channel Chairman-CEO Ken Solomon said he has "no fear" the network will exceed it.



The agreement gives the channel rights to VOD (and broadband) coverage of parts of the tournament. Tennis Channel could leverage those in negotiations with an MSO to gain carriage. The Tennis Channel's deal also allows it to sublicense rights, so it could sell all or part of the event back to ESPN or Versus or another cable net.

Formed in 2003, Tennis Channel carries second-tier tournaments and Davis Cup matches, so a Grand Slam would significantly upgrade its live action. Its aim is to follow the growth trajectory of the Golf Channel, formed in 1995 and now in more than 68 million homes.

ESPN maintains the cable rights to two other Grand Slams--Wimbledon and the Australian Open--while USA holds the rights to the U.S. Open.

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