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BBC Chief Wants More Wimbledon Night Matches, Less Grunting

The British Broadcasting Corp., which has provided coverage of Wimbledon since 1927, wants more nighttime tennis and less grunting during matches, according to the head of the network’s sports group.

Matches at this year’s Wimbledon championships finished as late as 11 p.m. with the retractable roof over Centre Court shut as rain interrupted play almost daily in the first week. While the weather gave tournament schedulers problems, it boosted television ratings for the BBC, the host broadcaster and U.K. rights holder.

“It’s been very successful,” Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, said yesterday in an interview. “Inevitably, when play moves into the peak evening, audiences are higher.”

A fourth-round match between eventual finalist Andy Murray of Britain and Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus finished at 11:02 p.m. local time, drawing a U.K. television audience of more than 8 million.

“It is safe to say that of course we as a broadcaster would love more tennis, and for that tennis to extend, but we are very aware there are constraints on the club,” said Slater, who was in charge of the BBC’s Olympics coverage this summer. “We have conversations with the All England Club, and they evolve their strategy going forward.”

‘No Plans’

“At this stage there are no plans,” to add night matches to the schedule, said Johnny Perkins, a spokesman for the All England Club, which organizes the annual tournament. “We stick to what we are; an outdoor daytime event with the capacity to play late if we need to.”

Nighttime tennis would mean “a huge re-think in operational terms,” such as changes to people’s shift patterns or transport, Perkins said.

Both the U.S. Open and Australian Open have evening sessions, while the French Open is considering adding night matches following the construction of a new stadium and extension of its grounds by 2017.

Slater spoke in an interview in London after addressing the Nolan Partners sport industry breakfast club about the BBC’s Olympics coverage.

Although the BBC this year extended its broadcasting agreement with Wimbledon until 2017, it didn’t show Andy Murray’s U.S. Open victory. Instead, his win -- the first Grand Slam singles title for a British man since 1936 -- was broadcast in the U.K. on an outlet owned by British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc.

‘Finite Income’

“Of course it is a shame, but we have to be realistic,” Slater said. “We are operating in a very competitive environment and we have finite income.”

The BBC, which is funded by an annual fee paid by all television owners in the U.K., is priced out of the market on some sports, including soccer, Slater said.

“We’re seeing those individual matches now command rights fees of 6.5 million pounds,” she said. “That has got out of reach of the license fee.”

Slater welcomed plans to tackle the issue of grunting in tennis, which she said frequently draws negative feedback from viewers.

The women’s WTA tennis tour in June said it’s working with the International Tennis Federation and the four majors to “drive excessive grunting” out of the sport. The WTA said it is forming a “sport-wide plan” to stop future stars from grunting by educating them and introducing rule changes.

‘A Shame’

“It is a shame, and some of our audience clearly don’t like that,” Slater said, when asked about excessive grunting by some players during tennis matches.

“You want to see women athletes achieving the very highest standards of play,” she said. “That is something that the governing bodies have got to work with the players on, wanting to be respectful of those players’ desire to play the game to their very maximum. But equally, I think it’s very important both for the crowd and the TV audiences that it doesn’t become too distracting.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh at the London sports desk at drossingh@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at celser@bloomberg.net

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