Disney’s ESPN Signs 12-Year Wimbledon Rights Agreement, Ending NBC’s Run

Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s ESPN acquired television rights to the Wimbledon tennis tournament, ending NBC’s run of showing the tournament after 43 years.

ESPN announced the 12-year agreement with the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club today in an e-mailed statement. Terms of exclusive U.S. television rights to the tennis season’s third Grand Slam tournament weren’t disclosed. The deal starts in 2012.

ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer said in the release that the network was “thrilled to be given continuing responsibility for honoring Wimbledon’s rich tradition.”

“Over the next 12 years, we’ll work closely together to move coverage of this great event forward with live coverage on television and using all the latest technologies and screens,” Bodenheimer said.

Since 2003, ESPN networks have aired roughly 100 hours annually from Wimbledon, according to the release. ESPN expects that number to increase to more than 140 hours with the new agreement, including live coverage of the men’s and women’s finals and semifinals, previously televised by NBC.

“We are delighted to be extending our partnership with ESPN, in a move which will consolidate our U.S. media rights under the auspices of a single partner,” Ian Ritchie, chief executive of the All England Club, said in the statement.

More Coverage

Coverage on ESPN3.com, ESPN’s online channel, will also expand, to more than 750 hours, the release said. ESPN3.com aired the men’s and women’s finals and semifinals on delay this year.

“We are proud of our 43-year partnership with the All England Club, and while we would have liked to have continued our relationship, we were simply outbid,” Comcast Corp.’s NBC said in an e-mailed statement.

Wimbledon is the latest major sports event to move to cable from network television, joining the Bowl Championship Series games on ESPN and Turner Broadcasting’s coverage of every other college basketball Final Four starting in 2016.

ESPN’s bid for Wimbledon was attractive because it offered the tournament more coverage on a variety of platforms, without interference from affiliates or news programming, Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications, said in a telephone interview.

“ESPN can devote almost an unlimited amount of time to Wimbledon, allowing it to show all the matches live, allowing it to show matches in the early morning, throughout the day, and it can do that because it’s an all-sports network with multiple channels and multiple platforms,” said Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports.

Pioneering Coverage

NBC pioneered live coverage of the Wimbledon final in the UI.S. in 1979, when it began airing the finals live as part of its “Breakfast at Wimbledon” segment. Pilson said that decision, which drew some criticism at the time, started a trend that 32 years later led to ESPN winning the rights.

“The idea was a good one, smart television, put it at nine o’clock in the morning,” Pilson said. “But eventually Wimbledon came to realize that it’s not just the finals, it’s also the second-week programming and first-week programming that should be live all the time.”

ESPN debuted on Sept. 7, 1979, and one week later showed its first tennis telecast, a Davis Cup match between Argentina and the U.S. The network has television rights to all four Grand Slam tournaments, having aired the Australian Open since 1984, the French Open since 2002, Wimbledon since 2003 and the U.S. Open since 2009.

Olympic Victory

Last month, NBC successfully bid $4.4 billion for rights to the Olympics through 2020, beating bids from ESPN and News Corp. Pilson said ESPN’s network of channels and other platforms might not have been as influential in those discussions because the Olympics are more of an entertainment property, where results are not absolutely critical for the enjoyment by the consumer.

The Super Bowl, Stanley Cup Final, National Basketball Association Finals and World Series, all result-oriented events, remain under contract with broadcast television networks. Pilson said the increasing number of major events doesn’t mean all will make the jump to cable, which reaches about 100 million homes against the broadcast networks’ 117 million homes.

“The broadcast networks still have a tremendous amount of economic power and reach,” he said.

NBC’s losing Wimbledon after 43 years was the end of an era in sports broadcasting, a partnership similar to CBS’s 56-year coverage of golf’s Masters Tournament, Pilson said.

“NBC has been a creative and very loyal partner with Wimbledon, and they’ve done a wonderful job over the years, but times are changing,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York at enovywilliam@bloomberg.net Rob Golum at rgolum@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.