ESPN and the ATP World Tour announced a new coverage deal that will increase ESPN's coverage of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., the Sony Open in Miami, Fla. and the ATP World Tour Finals in London, England. ESPN will also expand its coverage of the ATP's Masters 1000 and 500-level events via ESPN3, broadcasting up to 1,200 hours a year on its online platform.
The announcement seems to underline ESPN's continued to commitment to tennis (it already has the rights to all four Slams), but perhaps more importantly, it's commitment to growing interest in the sport outside the majors.
The new deal will flip which North American Masters tournament get network airtime. The Miami finals, which had previously been aired on CBS, will move to ESPN2 for the first time next year; the final weekend of the Indian Wells, held two weeks earlier, will be shown on ABC starting in 2015.
Not many tennis fans will complain about the switch. The Miami final takes place in the midst of CBS's March Madness coverage, which means tennis usually got the short end of the stick. During its coverage of this year's final, the network actually cut away from the decisive third-set tiebreak between Andy Murray and David Ferrer to begin its NCAA tournament coverage, leaving viewers scrambling to watch the end of the match either online or on Tennis Channel.
The decision to move the BNP Paribas Open to network television may have to do with the fact that nether Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, two of the biggest audience draws in men's tennis, seem all that motivated to play the Sony Open. Though the tournament is a mandatory event, both Federer and Nadal are entitled to skip it given their tenure and results on the ATP Tour, and this year, both chose to play in Indian Wells instead of in Miami. That could very well be their scheduling tactic going forward, thus making Indian Wells the more valuable tournament on the men's side.
However, on the women's side, the Sony Open in Miami continues to be the more prominent tournament, mostly due to Serena and Venus Williams. They have not played Indian Wells since the controversial incident in 2003, and their boycott probably will not change anytime soon. Therefore, mainstream viewers who tune into ABC will not get a chance to watch them.
Though the newly announced deal is specifically with the ATP, coverage will continue on a match-by-match for the WTA. This year ESPN aired one women's semifinal from Indian Wells and both semifinals in Miami. ESPN says the new deal doesn't signal a singular focus on the ATP. Getting ESPN's support for tournaments outside of the majors is a huge positive for the growth of tennis in America. For a sport that has events every week for nearly 11 months out of the year, engaging fans and showing them there's something to watch other than the Grand Slams is a must.