Sizing up NBC’s new French Open contract

After NBC lost the Wimbledon contract, I expected it to be only a matter of time before it lost the contract to the French Open. If NBC didn’t decide it was time to get out of one of the lesser grand slams after losing the premier grand slam to cable, Roland-Garros surely would award it to ESPN rather than put everyone through excruciating tape delays. That’s why Sunday, NBC signed a deal to broadcast the French Open for another twelve years… wait, what?!?

Yep, and there are no signs that NBC is stopping with its tape delays either. Not only that, NBC is expanding its coverage to levels more akin to what it used to do for Wimbledon or what CBS does with the US Open.

I can’t help but wonder how much of this has to do with the Tennis Channel being the official cable partner, which might complicate ESPN’s ability to take NBC’s package. More broadly, the timing of the broadcast deal vis-a-vis the cable deal clearly is huge. NBC lost Wimbledon almost solely because it would have to wait for two more years to put games on the NBC Sports Network. With the French Open, the cable deal came first, meaning ESPN’s position was already locked in for the long haul. I have to imagine the confluence of these two items boxed ESPN out and gave NBC all the leverage (unless CBS was interested).

Sport-Specific Networks
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More dispatches from the Wars

No Thursday Night Football? No problem: just go after a different football. The three major contenders in the sports TV wars will square off this week to pick up the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. ESPN will be looking to defend its World Cup incumbency, arguably its biggest non-NFL, non-BCS event, from the assault of NBC and Fox, two entities looking to shore up their soccer presence in the wake of NBC’s pick-up of an MLS contract.

Apparently, Dick Ebersol had a deal in place for NBC to take over the World Cup starting last year in 2005, but lost it partly because it had no interest in broadcasting soccer the rest of the year. NBC is in a different situation now, and in fact would like to make MLS less of an outlier on NBC and its sports network; other than the Olympics, NBC Sports hasn’t shown basically any of the sport. For NBC, it’s relevant that this contract will also be for two Women’s World Cups and other FIFA programming, to further fill out NBCSN’s schedule and build its soccer credibility. As with the Olympics, though, I don’t think the World Cup is the killer app NBCSN is looking for; one month every four years will not get it done, even in conjunction with the Olympics. I think that fact will depress how much NBC is willing to bid.

If NBC is trying to shore up its MLS programming, Fox is trying to make up for the loss of it. Fox has built its brand as one of the premier homes of soccer through its Fox Soccer channel, which has resulted in some matches airing on FSN, FX, and even the Fox network; the World Cup would be the crowning achievement of this trend. Fox Soccer is in half as many homes as NBCSN, but I would expect most non-Fox matches to air on FX, at least for the main men’s World Cup. The other competitions would be valuable programming for Fox Soccer, especially during a part of the schedule that will be even more dead with MLS leaving.

My guess is that ESPN has better than even odds of retaining the contract, given their demonstrated commitment to the sport. If ESPN loses the contract, I would make NBC the favorite over Fox. The World Cup will not grow Versus that much and Fox has a more established soccer infrastructure, but NBC still needs the Cup more, and I think losing MLS will kill Fox’s bid as much as motivate it, given FIFA’s desire that the winner promote soccer in this country through airing US National Team and MLS matches. (Also, without MLS Fox is much more likely to simply pull commentary from the English feed, something that might be verboten, certainly with soccer fans.) For that same reason, I would expect this fight to be a harbinger of who will take the MLS contract in full in a few years; the winner of this fight could be the odds-on favorite.

There is one more development to speak of, and it’s a little surprising. Since it started airing French Open matches, Tennis Channel has actually been the lead rights-holder, with ESPN2 coming along for the ride. Now Tennis Channel has renewed its deal for the next decade, and it will be the lead rights-holder for real, with ESPN2 being relegated to early-morning and other backup coverage.

Sport-Specific Networks
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Wimbledon to ESPN, and what’s beyond

When it comes to keeping sporting events on broadcast in the US, could Wimbledon be a victim of its own relative popularity?

Compare Wimbledon to the French Open. Both events air at about the same time of year, in about the same time slots, on NBC and ESPN2. But NBC airs Wimbledon coverage on weekdays during the second week, and doesn’t do the same for Roland Garros until the men’s semifinals on the last Friday. The result: American tennis fans harboring seething hatred towards NBC for tape-delaying Wimbledon matches during the second week to air its Today show, which may haveĀ cost NBC their part of the Wimbledon contract, despite apparently promising to end those delays down the road. (Reading between the lines, one could surmise that NBC was willing to show matches live, so long as they could do so on their own Versus network once ESPN’s contract ended after 2013. This may have come down to the mere fact that the cable rights weren’t up at the same time.)

Now, tennis has fallen so far in popularity that the fact there is any tennis in the middle of the week at all on broadcast television is clearly a relic of the days when Americans actually cared about tennis. Still, it’s rather odd that the more prestigious and popular Wimbledon will apparently become a cable-only affair, while the less prestigious Roland Garros will continue to have an NBC presence… at least in the short term, because while I don’t know how long NBC’s French Open contract lasts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow Wimbledon to cable, as it barely makes a blip on the sports radar ratings-wise these days.

Interestingly, there will be coverage of Wimbledon on regular ESPN during the second week, including the mens’ and womens’ finals, with ESPN and ESPN2 providing simultaneous coverage of different parts of the same event, which they’ve previously only done for soccer tournaments during the last round of group play. This obvious use of ESPN’s family of networks is why I had been hoping for ESPN to win the NCAA Tournament or Olympic contracts, events popular enough to actually justify such use, but it was not to be. What makes this interesting is that regular ESPN doesn’t cover the US Open, which is more popular stateside, but there is more sports competition that time of year. Also, there is normally some kind of soccer tournament in late June and early July at least every other year; would Wimbledon interfere with coverage of the World Cup or Euro tournament? I might have ordinarily expected ESPN to hand some of the coverage off to Tennis Channel, like they do for the US Open.

Apparently, besides NBC, Fox was considering making a run, but the thought of Fox doing a sport as straight-laced as tennis makes me shudder. However, I’m surprised CBS apparently didn’t make a run. They already carry the US Open and don’t have a morning show worth salvaging. On the other hand, the rest of their daytime is in better shape than NBC’s. But after losing out on the NHL and Olympics, in the end this represents ESPN’s first true head-to-head sports rights victory over NBC since the Comcast merger went through, even if a small one, and the first time anyone other than Fox has ended an incumbency. Because of the problems with NBC’s coverage, however, it’s unclear what it represents for NBC’s long-term prospects against ESPN.

We may find out about that soon enough, though, for far more than a mere blip on the radar like tennis. There’s an unexpected new battleground on the horizon. The NFL may be making plans to take Thursday Night Football full-season as a consolation prize for not getting their 18-game schedule. And that could be, by far, the biggest battleground in sight. More on this one later.

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I’m sure the only reason the pigs aren’t airborne is because it’s heavy overcast.

Day 94 of the BottomLine watch. Over three months since an ESPN spokesperson told Sports Media Watch the new BottomLine would be back “soon”. I’m starting to think it may not come back at all, or at the very least it’ll probably be another six months…

…what’s that? What’s that thing at the bottom of the screen? The… the new BottomLine is back! I knew it was only a matter of time! Naturally I have some thoughts:

  • When the BottomLine first disappeared I gave a list of some things that maybe they were adjusting it for. It certainly appears it now has “SCORE ALERT” functionality, but it also has a bunch of graphic spiffiness involving the divider between the score and stats – which, while I liked the shrinking of the score, if adopting that functionality is part of the reason the return of the BottomLine took so long, they need to take another look at their priorities.
  • Looks like ESPN2 isn’t losing the last vestiges of its identity after all, as the ESPN2 BottomLine still says “ESPN2”, albeit because my SD TV has problems with centering (or that could just be my cable box) it’s partly cut off. They’re clearly locating both logos differently vis-a-vis the right side of the screen (and each other) compared to the old BottomLine.
  • It appears that, regardless of program, it’s simply “ESPN BottomLine” except on SportsCenter. Granted, I only noticed the change on Jim Rome Is Burning, Around The Horn, and PTI, not on studio shows like NFL Live and Baseball Tonight.
  • Why is it, say, “RANGERS VS ORIOLES” for baseball when a game hasn’t started yet, but for, say, the Gold Cup, it’s “USA” and “HONDURAS” in separate boxes as though showing the score, as in the old BottomLine? If it’s to condense the display to show when a game is on an ESPN network and 360, why is it condensed for the other baseball games, and why isn’t it condensed for soccer? Personally I prefer the separate-boxes approach, the other way is just gimmicky…

While we’re here, let’s take a look at other developments in the world of sports graphics:

Remember when Versus introduced a new banner at the NHL Conference Semifinals? Well, for the Conference Finals, and continuing through its Stanley Cup Finals games, Versus changed its banner. Again. So, which was the banner they originally intended to adopt for the long haul? Was the change a response to people’s criticism of the old banner, or was the old banner always a placeholder until the new one was ready and they were too embarrassed about the previous banner to wait?

Or is this the placeholder while Versus updates the other graphics? Because if there’s one thing that marks this graphic, it’s the return of the old fonts. Beyond that, the main features are the addition of black-on-white boxes for the period number and time left in the period.

Meanwhile, it’s official: the gray, two-line box is becoming a trend. Fox adopted it not only for FSN, but for its own baseball broadcasts as well, and ESPN turned it into a strip; now TBS has joined in on the fun. But TBS seems to be insanely protective of its video; not only can’t I find any video of the new TBS box online that I can embed, ESPN and other outlets (even!) use local feeds for their highlights of TBS games (which means there aren’t even any highlights I can’t embed). But they can’t shake this forever, and you will see a full analysis of the TBS box come this October.

In tennis, ESPN moved the banner it introduced at the Australian Open to the top of the screen at the French for some reason. Somehow I think that wasn’t the only change; the strip seems bigger for some reason. Whatever it is, it seems more amateur.

At Wimbledon, however, perhaps as a result of realizing that the banner was potentially confusing and maybe even in preparation of transitioning tennis onto the new MNF-styled banner, ESPN rolled out a small, compact box, but kept the “scoreboard” aspect of, among other things, showing deuce as 40-40 by placing the points alongside the game count and abandoning server-first order entirely (again). It’s a big improvement over the Australian/French banner in my opinion, one of the better tennis graphics ESPN has yet tried that isn’t a carbon copy of the norm in this country.

It appears ESPN took one lesson from the world feed, but not the one I suggested last year upon seeing their abomination of a Wimbledon graphic – the points display here is similar to that used by the world feed. All that’s left is showing number of sets instead of score of sets and abbreviating last names! Okay, not so much…

More on the greatest player of all time debate.

So earlier today I heard Michael Wilbon claim on PTI you have to put Federer ahead of Sampras because the tiebreaker is that Federer won the French and Sampras didn’t.

Um, NO. Sampras got the same number of Grand Slams as Federer against better competition, and you can’t begrudge him never winning the French because of that. ESPECIALLY since the only reason Federer won the French is because Nadal crapped out.

Get it? Got it? Good.

Let’s bring this guy down to earth.

I’m sorry, Mr. Perrotta.

There IS debate as to whether Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time. You don’t get to cop out by saying “well, you can’t compare players of different eras”. You CAN say Federer played against inferior opposition for most of his career and never won the French when he had to get past Nadal.

You CAN say Sampras, or Agassi, or McEnroe, or Conners, or Borg, or even Laver and some guys I’ve never heard of were better because they may not have been as dominating, but they proved it against opposition that was as good as they were.

Top 10? At this point, yes. But I vehemently object to anyone who suggests there’s no debate that Federer is the greatest player of all time.

Predictions for SportsCenter’s "Top 10 Games" of 2008

In case you haven’t heard, this was a particularly exciting year in sports. When ESPN’s “SportsCenter” does its annual “Top 10 Games” countdown, they could easily extend it to a Top 20. With so many great games, I’ve taken it upon myself to take my own stab at mimicking the ESPN list and what it might look like.

Between some college football playoff-related features and Da Blog’s regular features, I think it’s reasonable to schedule the College Football Rankings’ release, as well as the bowl schedule, for Thursday.

#10: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, men’s basketball gold medal match, USA v. Spain. The “Redeem Team” lives up to their name in a game Bill Simmons called “one of the 10 most dramatic basketball games of my lifetime. And nobody gave a crap or even knew. The game started at 2:30 in the morning ET and vanished into thin air. Only West Coasters and super-diehards stayed up to see it.”

#9: NHL Hockey, Winter Classic, Pittsburgh Penguins @ Buffalo Sabres. Could the NHL have asked for anything less than a shootout from the first (true) Winter Classic?

#8: College football, SEC Championship Game, Florida v. Alabama. If the regular season is a playoff, this was its semifinal – and it certainly played like one.

#7: MLB Baseball, ALCS Game 5, Tampa Bay Rays @ Boston Red Sox. For the moment, just forget about the fact the Sox couldn’t come all the way back to win the series.

#6: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, swimming, 4x100m freestyle relay OR 100m butterfly OR 4x100m medley relay. The first two were dramatic finishes on Michael Phelps’ road to Mark Spitz’s record. The last was the one that broke it and had an exciting finish of its own. And I only have it at #6.

#5: College football, Texas @ Texas Tech. The Red Raiders came out to an early lead, only to see Texas come storming back to take a lead of its own. In the end, Texas Tech had the play of the year, and as it turned out, the one that kept Texas out of the National Championship Game.

#4: Wimbledon, men’s final, Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal. This and the next two I could have put in any order. A five-set, record-length classic that ended with Nadal finally getting the best of Federer away from clay.

#3: Men’s college basketball, NCAA Tournament Final, Kansas v. Memphis. Finally, a National Championship game that lives up to being the culmination of March Madness instead of being a complete anticlimax!

#2: US Open Golf, playoff, Tiger Woods v. Rocco Mediate. 19 holes of pure tension, as basically an unknown gives Tiger every inch of challenge he has, and brings out Tiger’s best to put him on top. And Tiger was injured to the extent it’s still the last event he’s played!

#1: NFL Football, Super Bowl XLII, New England Patriots v. New York Giants. Perhaps the greatest iteration ever of the biggest sporting event of every year? How can it not be #1?

Honorable Mentions: IRL racing, Indy Japan 300 (Danica wins!); Euro 2008 quarterfinal, Croatia v. Turkey (or was it the semis, where Germany beat Turkey? Basically a sop to my soccer-crazed dad anyway); MLB Home Run Derby; ArenaBowl XXII, Soul v. SaberCats (about the only thing that could make it better is if it were the last one); some NBA game I’m forgetting; some obscure game I never heard of or just didn’t watch (possibly from MMA, boxing, the LLWS, Fresno State’s run, the WNBA, MLS, or the like)

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 9/6-7

All times PDT.

10-1 PM: College Football, New Hampshire @ Army (ESPN Classic). I chose this game almost completely at random. (Hey, Troy-LSU got postponed due to Gustav and would have interfered with tennis anyway, Missouri would also interfere with tennis, and all three lineal title games aren’t even on regional television. FSN South and SunSports for the Central Michigan-Georgia game doesn’t count.)

1:30-5 PM: College Football, West Virginia @ East Carolina (ESPN). Yes, Fox baseball will probably fall off the face of the earth with college football season in full swing.

5-7 PM: US Open Tennis, Women’s Final, S. Williams v. Jankovic (CBS). Rather than the all Williams final YOU demand, you get Williams versus a nobody!

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 88 (PPV). Eighty-eight, eighty-eight, eight eighty eighty-eight… why isn’t this being held in China? Okay, I’m in an odd mood this week, you can tell because I didn’t even mention Couture v. Lesnar…

10-1 PM: NFL Football, NY Jets @ Miami (CBS). OMG it’s the debut of Brett Favre! Let’s watch every single Jets game with such rapt attention our eyes come out of our sockets! (NASCAR or WNBA also possible.)

1-4 PM: US Open Tennis, Men’s Final (CBS). I know nothing about this! NOTING!

Honorable Mention: 12:30-3 PM: IndyCar Racing, PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 (ABC). It’s the last race of the season! The championship all comes down to this! (Er… ignore that little Australian race in the corner coming in a month and a half…)

Second Honorable Mention: 11-3 PM: PGA Tour Golf, The Barclays BMW Championship, final round (NBC). More of the playoff that’s nothing like a playoff! Why is this even on here?

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, Philadelphia @ NY Mets (ESPN). I like cookies.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 7/19-20 (UPDATED)

All times PDT.

11:30-1 PM: AVP Crocs Tour, AVP Crocs Slam Brooklyn, men’s final (NBC). Yes, despite the British Open we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel this week.

1-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). Tune in immediately upon the end of volleyball. Because it didn’t end in a tie I originally wasn’t going to comment on the All-Star Game, until people on TV started commenting on it anyway. The “this time it counts” era was supposed to prevent this sort of thing, and it’s obvious that it didn’t. Now there’s a lot of hand-wringing about adding more pitchers to the roster, but how about tackling the problem at its source? Here are the problems with the ASG and their sources:

  • The players and managers treat it like an exhibition, instead of as a source of pride for their league. “This time it counts” was supposed to fix that problem, and strangely, it’s being credited for fixing that problem. We may be able to attribute to “this time it counts” the fact we could have gone into the 16th whereas 2002 ended after 12, and the managers were prepared to use position players to pitch instead of ending the game in a tie.
  • The managers feel obligated to use every player that’s willing, to mollify them but even more to mollify their fans. In the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for position players to play the whole game.
  • Teams’ concerns about overworking pitchers.
  • The rise of middle relievers and closers. Have a look at the 1968 All Star Game, the year before saves became an official stat. You see the same pitching carousel we see now, with a few more multi-inning pitchers – but every last pitcher was a starter, in an age where it was rare for pitchers to fail to go seven innings. The 1967 All-Star Game went 15 innings with no problem; Catfish Hunter pitched the final five innings for the AL (and ultimately lost), a feat that seems inconceivable today. Now teams protect pitchers more and gobble up large chunks of their rosters with relievers. Now pitching is not a position where players are interchangable at will – replacement pitchers have specific roles in theory – and thus is not a position well suited for all-star games. The NBA All-Star Game may well be the best all-star game, followed by the NHL, because their games actually feel like real games, unusually strong offense notwithstanding.

I’m not sure if anything can be done about any of that at this point, but if anything can, it’s worth thinking about.

6:30-9:30 PM: NASCAR Nationwide Series racing, Gateway (ESPN2). Because I rarely get a chance to put up a Nationwide Series race and there’s no Sprint Cup action this week.

UPDATED 7/19: ALTERNATE: 6-9 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, Fight Night (Spike TV). Not sure how highly to rate this since it’s not what would normally be considered a PPV, but I don’t want it to go unmentioned. Live on both coasts, so 9-12 on the East Coast.

5-10:30 AM: PGA Golf, British Open, final round (ABC). If there’s a golf tournament, and Tiger isn’t playing in it, does it make a sound?

10:30-1 PM: IndyCar Racing, Honda Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio (ABC). Last year ratings were inflated by the British Open. Look for history to repeat itself.

12-2 PM: LPGA Golf, State Farm Classic, final round (ESPN2). Girl Power Sunday again!

2-4 PM: US Open Series, Bank of the West Classic, women’s singles final (ESPN2). Girl Power Sunday and Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel Weekend again!

6-8 PM: The ESPY Awards (ESPN). Because there can exist nothing for which there is not an awards show of some kind. And no network should have to go without an awards show.

Absolutely amazing final. Now that that’s over, something completely different.

Two things. I mentioned before that I conceived of Da Blog as a series of sub-blogs, but regardless of which sub-blogs you follow, you should probably also follow the blog news tag, because it will often have things pertaining to all other tags. I’ll also use “blog news” to herald the introduction of new tags you might like, like this “sports tv graphics” one.

I know a lot of people don’t like ESPN’s attempt to create a strip or banner at the top of the screen for a score display for tennis coverage; it’s rather non-intuitive. But everything is strips these days – the only networks that still use a box for ANY sport, not counting tennis, are CBS for football and TNT for basketball. And tennis doesn’t lend itself well to a strip; even after importing its post-“Sunday Night Football” broadcast package, NBC still uses a box for tennis, and so does its corporate sibling USA, and so does CBS, and so does the Tennis Channel.

Well, I’ve stumbled upon (no, this is not the Random Discovery of the Week) the BBC’s Wimbledon graphics package, and I believe I may have a solution. You can kind of make it out in this video (which is not the same as the one I’ve linked to):

It’s a box, but it may contain the key to creating a workable tennis strip. I’ve created a mock-up based on ESPN’s graphics package:

I would probably want to make the space for the score longer, because “DEUCE” doesn’t fit in that space and I might want to say something like “AD FEDERER” rather than what ESPN does now, which is just “AD” and highlighting whoever has the advantage. And I forgot to include any indication of who’s serving. Break points, set points, match points, and the like would be indicated by a small banner slipping down underneath the strip. I don’t know what I would do for tiebreaks. My guess is either have another little banner fall beneath the strip, similar to what would be done for statistics, or shift over the spaces for sets and games and add a new space. Or separate both sets and games into their own clearly delineated spaces and simply open up a new space to the left of the others for the tiebreak. But that breaks the implied sets-games-points hierarchy.

Thoughts? Ways my idea could be improved? Or am I so off base I need to be whacked with a two-by-four before my abominations become accepted?