Because of John Newcombe's quick victory over Bjorn Borg in the finals of last May's WCT championships, NBC was left with a large chunk of air time to fill—and no live action to fill it. So the network decided to run portions of a tape of the previous year's title match between Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. The replay was rolling when an NBC official noticed what the other networks were showing. There on ABC were Ashe and Smith slamming tennis balls at each other. Since they were still at the WCT tourney, NBC could be sure of one thing about ABC's show. It also was a tape of an earlier match.
This is merely one indication of the confusion that has accompanied the boom in televised tennis. Although the numbers who play and watch the sport are zooming, at the highest levels conflicting governing groups seem determined to befuddle the game's new adherents. It is a situation that not only allows Ashe and Smith to show up in three places at once, but leaves fans bewildered over which of their favorites are alive, dead or exist only on video tape.
"Tennis would be a very difficult sport for the networks to fight a ratings' war over," says Chet Simmons, NBC's vice-president of sports operations. "Its history is filled with internal squabbling, and fragmentation remains the game's biggest problem. A fan can pick up a newspaper any day and see so many tennis results coming at him from so many directions that he has to be bewildered. It isn't at all like golf, where a Johnny Miller suddenly gets hot and everybody can keep up with what he's doing. Tennis is a sport going off in different directions."
Tennis is no longer a minor media boomlet. It has developed swiftly, perhaps too swiftly, into a major element in television programing, and during the next five months NBC, CBS, ABC and the Public Broadcasting Service are going to lob enough matches into American living rooms to give viewers severe cases of tennis eye.
Five years ago about the only tennis matches found on network TV were the finals of Forest Hills and Wimbledon, and reruns of Strangers on a Train. This year more than 50 matches will be shown between March and September.
One reason for television's turn to tennis is a Nielsen survey that indicates 34 million people in the U.S. now play the game compared to 10.6 million in 1970. Another is that tennis shows are less costly to produce than other sports events. And they offer broadcasters a chance to explore a new market. "One thing about tennis is that women who do not care at all about other televised sports get interested in it," says Robert Wussler, CBS-TV's vice-president for sports.
Wussler, who took over a moribund CBS sports department last July, has made the big volleys in tennis broadcasting so far this year. In January he picked up the U.S. delayed-tape rights for the John Newcombe-Jimmy Connors final in the Marlboro Australian Open for only $15,000. A month later CBS paid a bit less than $100,000 to televise the Connors-Rod Laver match from Las Vegas and drew an estimated 17 million viewers. While not a large audience by World Series or Super Bowl standards, it was the largest ever to watch tennis, except for the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs hype. Recently CBS agreed to pay around $600,000 for the rights to a Connors-Newcombe rematch on April 26 in Vegas.
"The ratings on Connors-Laver amazed us," says Wussler. "People were talking about CBS again. The concept of a heavyweight championship of tennis now interests me, even though six months ago I don't know if we would have paid as much as $25,000 for live coverage of Connors-Newcombe. I see some similarities between a 22-year-old Connors playing Laver and Newcombe and young Jack Nicklaus challenging Arnold Palmer in golf in the 60s."
The important fact for broadcasters and tennis promoters about the forthcoming Connors-Newcombe match is that CBS is charging $55,000 per commercial minute. That is approximately what sponsors pay for NFL regular-season telecasts. "There's no doubt that tennis appeals to a higher-income audience, and when you play a big match at Caesars Palace, quite a bit of Stardust rubs off," says Wussler. "But there are still limes when I get mystified about the attraction of the game on television."
One attraction is that tennis is an easy game to follow on TV. It is played in a confined space completely covered by the cameras, and unlike baseballs and hockey pucks, a tennis ball is almost always visible. What most hurls the sport's appeal is the mysterious ragout of blue, green, red WCT and IPA men players performing on a nonstop carousel of "classics." Thanks to the Virginia Slims tour, women's tennis is easier to comprehend. With King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Margaret Court and now Martina Navralilova, Slims has done a lot to make tennis into an interesting TV sport.
The next five months will be critical for televised tennis. Fans are going to be more confused than ever trying to figure out what is live, what is taped and who is playing for what alphabetical championship. And non-players, of whom there are about 170 million, may turn their sets off in disgust and never tune in again. "We've got to get coordinated," Billie Jean King says. "With taped matches you're liable to see somebody playing two or three guys in different tournaments the same day at the same time." We will. Indeed, we have.