Nothing like a sleepless, pain-filled night for me to actually appreciate the value of what ESPN was always intended to be.
As the network is continually being invoked in controversies about its direction, its ownership and its dedication to its staffers, usually when it surrounds more popular sports and personalities, it’s somewhat nice to be reminded that in its infancy, it was best defined as a place to turn forentertainment and sports when nothing else would otherwise be on. (Yes, the E and the S DO stand for something).
ESPN has always had a symbiotic relationship with Australia; when it first launched, it acquired the rights to broadcast Australian Rules Football, sometimes live in the middle of the night. It was weird, the announcers’ accents were strange (though later in my career, they became commonplace). But it was something.
When ESPN expanded its footprint to include tennis, more established networks like CBS, NBC and HBO controlled the rights to the U.S. and European spokes of the Grand Slam. The French Open and Wimbledon allowed for NBC to establish its legendary “Breakfast At…” coverage on weekend mornings and those now-iconic matches featuring the likes of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. HBO was able to encroach its way into city businesses with its all-day coverage of the weekday festivities, in combination with the BBC. But Australia was always an odd duck (platypus?) with its time zones being waaay out of whack for those opportunities.
Enter ESPN, opportunistically, especially when it had enough of a footprint to figure out that the early morning matches, usually afterthoughts, would nicely fit into prime time on the West Coast, and that by airing the entire day’s worth of matches it could conceivably extend into its own breakfast block on the East Coast. And as the network’s Christine Calcagno celebrated in a recent press release, the lovefest between network and the all-but-forgotten Grand Slam has reached both a milestone and a peak this year:
It’s “Summer Down Under” as ESPN brings tennis fans in North America every match from every round of the 2024 Australian Open live from Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia. Exclusive coverage begins on a historic Saturday start in the U.S., January 13 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and midnight ET on ESPN2. Live coverage across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN+ will include all matches from all 15 courts, with every match streaming live on ESPN+.
With Melbourne 16 hours ahead of the United States, day session matches will air on ESPN linear networks in primetime ET and night session matches will air at 3 a.m. ET. In all, ESPN will air more than 240 hours of live coverage on its linear networks, an increase of 35% over 2023. This is ESPN’s 40th annual presentation of this Australian Open, representing its longest uninterrupted professional sports programming relationship. ESPN has held the rights to the event since 1984.
And last night, when I truly needed it, it provided the exact kind of relaxation and distraction I needed as I waited for meds and exhaustion to occasionally intervene. I was lucky enough to see a thrilling five-set match between American up-and-comer Ben Shelton and French stalwart Adrian Mannarino that extended through most of the wee hours. And after that, the hometown crowd thrilled to the challenge of local upstart with perhaps one of the most central casting names of all time, Storm Hunter, as she attempted to stave off eventual elimination from ninth-seeded Czech Barbora Krejcikova. Barbora did indeed emerge with a hard-fought three-set win to advance to the Round of 16, but to hear the locals, at approximately 1:40 AM Melbourne time, as vocal and enthusiastic as any Flushing Meadows crowd has ever been during some of the U.S. Open’s historic late-night matches, root not only for their local gal but also just to keep the party going as long as possible, took away a lot of pain of my own. And unlike many of them, I wasn’t using a can or three of Foster’s to help.
This wasn’t an unusual occurrence this week; the prior night, matches extended until 4 AM local time, or 10 AM EST. Breakfast? Heck, it practically made it to brunch.
I don’t watch ESPN as often as I used to; indeed, I don’t watch all that much tennis any more. All of this coverage is focused on ESPN2, which is as much of an afterthought in the corporate machinations as it ever has been. Ratings, I’m certain, were minimal if not microscopic.
But I’m awfully glad it was there when I needed it, if for nothing else to remind me of the value proposition, and perhaps make me slightly less pissed when Bob AIger sets the price to receive it direct-to-consumer. As long as they keep content like this, it will be seen in a different light. Cheaper than Xanax, for sure.
As I’m writing this, the Storm chase is over; Barbora has advanced. Another night–er, day–in the books.