Monday, March 1, 2004
By Terry Lefton
ESPN is close to signing a multiyear agreement with the U.S. Tennis Association that would give tennis a regularly scheduled TV outlet and transform what has been a disparate summer schedule of men's and women's events into the U.S. Open Series - a regular season of top events culminating in the U.S. Open.
An ESPN programming executive confirmed that the network was in advanced talks with the USTA but cautioned that the USTA had to line up a requisite number of tournaments before a deal was complete.
Tennis sources said four summer tournaments have signed on with two more expected to join soon. USTA officials have said inking six of the 10 summer tournaments targeted for inclusion in the series would be enough to get it started.
Summer tournaments believed to have signed on: the IMG-owned Bank of the West women's tourney in Palo Alto, Calif.; the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C.; one if not both of the men's (Mercedes-Benz Cup) and women's (JP Morgan Chase Open) events in Los Angeles; and the USTA-owned Pilot Pen Tournament in New Haven, Conn. The hope would be to make the U.S. summer tournament swing a regular season tying into a U.S. Open Super Bowl-style championship.
With the addition of ESPN, and with MassMutual joining Olympus as a sponsor (see related story), the potential series has two sponsors, four events and three broadcasters. The USA Network and CBS previously committed.
"We're at the tipping point on this," said one senior tennis executive.
Details on the proposed deal with ESPN were sketchy. Sources indicated it's a time buy, with revenue and advertising sales split between the USTA and ESPN. The USTA is selling a seven-figure presenting sponsorship package.
USTA CEO of pro tennis Arlen Kantarian, who would not comment for this story, has been working to unify the often fractious world of agents, tournament directors and governing bodies under one TV and marketing platform since he joined the USTA in 2000.
With each tournament individually owned, and many in the sport seeing the USTA as the big bully, getting the sport's act together has proved tricky.
"Everyone's been dancing around trying to protect their own little interests," said Donald Dell, senior vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment, whose SFX unit runs the Washington tourney.
A strong supporter of Kantarian's efforts, Dell said he fully expected the series to get off the ground this year.
"The USTA with their muscle and their money are doing the right thing," Dell said. "A phenomenally important thing in building a tennis platform."
IMG co-CEO Bob Kain said discussions about including IMG's women's summer stop were headed toward conclusion. "We've been supportive of this all along," he said, "because it's really the best thing for the game."