With the onset of the second major tournament of the 2013 tennis season, it almost feels like the sport is coming into full bloom, much like the plants and fauna surrounding those fans living in the Northern Hemisphere.
For those of us who spent the last several months strapping on snowshoes every morning, the addition of a Grand Slam tournament to springtime is much like receiving the real-life version of the Monopoly card that reads "bank error in your favor."
Seeing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams sliding across the red clay is enough to make any passive player-fan want to pick up a racket and head out to his or her local outdoor tennis facility to take advantage of the warm weather as well as that extra boost of motivation that comes with watching the drama of a Slam unfold.
Unfortunately for many fans, that utopia hasn't come to pass.
One main reason for this disappointing reality is that coverage of the French Open in 2013 has lacked comprehensive substance, especially for viewers without a subscription to the Tennis Channel.
ESPN has had the rights to at least partial coverage of all four Grand Slam tournaments since 2009 when it wrestled the U.S. Open away from the USA Network. Along with the somewhat mysterious concept of "partial coverage," ESPN also had rights through the championship match in two of the four Grand Slams (the Australian Open and Wimbledon).
Then, just a couple weeks ago, the media giant again upped the ante. On May 17, ESPN.com reported, "The US Open tennis tournament will be aired exclusively on ESPN networks beginning with the 2015 tournament." The same report followed up with, "ESPN will now have complete rights to the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. ESPN also televises parts of the French Open, along with Tennis Channel and NBC."
The word "parts" in that last statement probably sounds a lot like nails on a chalkboard to many fans in the United States (and possibly around the world) since the competition kicked off this year in Paris. ESPN2 is usually the home of Grand Slam action within the ESPN media universe and is also one of the channels typically included in standard cable packages offered throughout the country.
Depressingly, the coverage by ESPN of the 2013 French Open has been severely lacking. Especially for a network that frequently markets the fact that it controls the "grand slam" of tennis coverage (i.e. all four major tournaments of the calendar year on one network).
In the company's defense, it's possible that its current contract with the French Open prohibits it from providing anything resembling adequate coverage of the proceedings.
If that is the case, the network should take swift action to rectify what appears to be a sizable hole in its Grand Slam coverage.
Programming related to the French Open this year comes nowhere close to the extravagant plans laid out recently for the U.S. Open in 2015. After securing complete rights at Flushing Meadows in 2015, ESPN President John Skipper said, "We look forward to capturing every match, every star, every championship and all the drama on this grand stage."
The network hasn't come anywhere close to delivering that type of viewing experience for the French Open in 2013.
There are two aspects of the network's programming that stand out as legitimate and correctable deficiencies. First, the station has only been broadcasting matches in the very early to mid-morning, when most people are either asleep or at work. Additionally, ESPN has not embraced the concept of a highlight show specific to the Slams or professional tennis.
If the network doesn't see the necessary economics to produce a weekly Tennis Tonight type program, then it could at the very least offer a daily Grand Slam Tonight during the two-week period in which each Slam is contested.
It's possible that contractual limitations between ESPN and organizers of the French Open limit the network's ability to replay matches at its own discretion. However, it's doubtful that such a constraint exists with regard to the network's ability to create and air a highlight show that could help leverage the network's investment in professional tennis.
On Saturday, June 1, the French Open schedule called for more than a few enticing matches involving top players such as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Looking at the programming schedule for ESPN2 on June 1, one can identify five hours of that 24-hour period dedicated to NFL football news and commentary.
In that same 24-hour period, there was not a single block of programming reserved for coverage of the French Open. It was the same situation on June 2.
For those who aren't aware of the American sports calendar, the NFL is not even in season right now. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic ocean, Rafael Nadal is fighting to become the first man in the modern era to possess eight titles from the same Slam.
If there weren't so many other problems in the world these days, I might otherwise describe this situation as tragic. It's probably much closer to a frustrating inconvenience.
However, one would think the brain trust at ESPN could conjure up some more imaginative programming than recycled news stories for sports leagues that aren't even in the midst of their season.
ESPN has done a great job of acquiring rights to the majors and anointing themselves the one-stop shop for Grand Slam tennis. Now it's time to see if the network can build a credible product that provides a five-star viewing experience for the fans.
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