After bumping her sister.

Photographer: Alessandra del Bene/Getty Images)

Tennis Waited Too Long for the 'Serena Bump'

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Serena Williams has become Must-See TV.

The defending U.S. Open champion's quarterfinal match against her sister, Venus, Tuesday night scored the second-highest tennis ratings ever for ESPN. The entire five-hour-plus primetime telecast, which included the men's quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Feliciano Lopez, garnered a 2.7 overnight rating. The Williams sisters drew a 4.8, peaking at 5.6 from 10 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.

For perspective, SportsBusiness Daily notes that the Williams's rating matched that of ESPN's coverage of the Home Run Derby during MLB's All-Star Weekend in July. It also bested Saturday's primetime college football game between Alabama and Wisconsin, which drew a 4.3 overnight on ESPN's sister network, ABC. While it's difficult to make a straight comparison between a Saturday night and a weekday primetime broadcast, the Williams's ratings are impressive given the match's airing against pennant-race baseball.

If Williams wins in Thursday's semifinal against unranked Italian Roberta Vinci, the true test of the "Serena Bump" will come Saturday afternoon, with the women's final scheduled for 3 p.m., pitting it directly against college football. 

Serena's quest for the calendar Grand Slam and her 22nd career major singles title has rejuvenated national interest in tennis. For the first time ever, tickets to the U.S. Open women's final sold out before the men's, and viewers are tuning in in impressive numbers to witness history. The first three days of U.S. Open coverage saw a 58 percent jump in total viewers from last year, and a 50 percent increase in ratings. That's perhaps even more impressive given that this is the first year the tournament is airing exclusively on cable and streaming, with ESPN bumping CBS from an event the broadcast network has covered since 1968.

As the future of television moves increasingly to streaming, live sports have been a major focus, given their seemingly built-in resistance to cord-cutting. It's encouraging, then, that ESPN's streaming offerings for the U.S. Open have seen record numbers, no doubt thanks partly to Serena, and perhaps more than a few tennis fans sneaking in some day matches on their work computers. The first three days of the tournament saw a 224 percent bump in live minutes viewed on WatchESPN from last year. The Williams sisters' quarterfinal drew a record 612,000 streaming viewers, for a total of 44.8 million minutes viewed.

Tennis has struggled on television in recent years as Americans' interest in the sport has waned from its glory days in the 1970s and the 1990s. Ratings continue to be mostly star-driven, and the absence of a true American men's star since the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi days hasn't helped. Yet Serena's effect on ratings is almost Tiger Woods-like in its predictability, and you can't help but think that tennis did itself no favors in failing to fully capitalize on her and Venus's potential to generate interest in the sport.

The media's relationship with the Williams sisters has often been antagonistic; you still hear broadcasters talk about their "us against the world" attitude of their earlier years, before noting the supposedly recent shift to be more "mature." That perceived shift can be attributed less to Serena's actions than to commentators altering their treatment of the sisters, thanks in part to the democratization of social media. Fifteen years ago, John McEnroe was writing acerbic columns criticizing the Williams sisters' lack of respect and humility; now, he's somewhat begrudgingly forced to admit Serena's greatness and thinks she should run for president. (He still thinks he, at 56 years old, could beat her on the court, so I suppose not all has changed.)

Theirs is the essence of the Great American Sports Story: Two poor, black sisters Straight Outta Compton rising to the top of a sport that has historically excluded people like them, changing the nature of the game and elevating the women to the status of the men, at least in prize money. Yet it took until now for the sport and its broadcasters to really try to capitalize on that narrative, highlighted by a brief docudrama narrated by Ron Howard before Tuesday's match. The Serena Bump this year shows it might not be too late to recover a lost generation of tennis fans. The big question then quickly turns to what happens to the sport after the Williamses retire. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net