ESPN's gamble to serve more tennis appears to be paying off as the sports network said last weekend's Wimbledon championship matches produced some of the highest ratings for tennis in ESPN's 33-year history.
Last year, ESPN began providing TV coverage of the final weekend of the storied London tennis tournament, replacing incumbent NBC.
The peacock network had broadcast Wimbledon championship matches for more than 40 years but the All England Lawn Tennis Club showed NBC its backhand after the 2011 tournament. The group opted to instead sign a 12-year pact with ESPN after it grew increasingly frustrated by NBC's preemptions during key matches that angered U.S. tennis fans.
Sunday's Gentlemen’s Championship, which saw Andy Murray of Scotland become the first male champion from Britain in 77 years, generated the second-largest audience for tennis in ESPN's history.
Nearly 2.5 million people watched ESPN's coverage of the tense, three-set duel in which Murray defeated No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia. (ABC rebroadcast the match later Sunday, but ABC's audience totals will not be available until later in the week.)
Sunday's audience on ESPN, however, fell well short of last year's performance when 3.9 million viewers in the U.S. watched Roger Federer of Switzerland vanquish Murray to claim his seventh Wimbledon title after a drama that lasted four sets.
On Saturday, ESPN's telecast of the Ladies’ Championship, in which Marion Bartoli of France won her first major title by beating No. 23 ranked Sabine Lisicki of Germany, along with the Gentlemen's Doubles Championship, in which American brothers Bob and Mike Bryan captured their 15th major title, attracted more than 1.3 million viewers.
The Saturday double-header ranked as the fifth-most watched tennis event ever on ESPN, which is owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp. In addition, ESPN said that usage of its WatchESPN mobile application increased nearly fourfold from last year's tournament.
ESPN has been making a sizable investment on tennis. Although the audiences are much smaller than for basketball or professional football, tennis attracts affluent viewers that luxury brands, including Rolex and Mercedes Benz, pay a premium to reach.
ESPN also has been paying big money to lock up the rights to several marquee sports properties to fend off emerging competitors, including the Fox Sports national cable channels, scheduled to launch next month, and the recently rebranded NBC Sports Network.
In May, ESPN clinched an 11-year deal with the United States Tennis Assn. for the exclusive TV rights to the U.S. Open tennis tournament beginning in 2015.
ESPN paid close to $75 million annually for the U.S. Open rights, a steep increase from what the USTA has been receiving in its current deal with CBS. The switch to ESPN is expected to end CBS' 45-year streak of broadcasting the U.S. Open.
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