Liberte! Egalite! Obscurite?!

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As this is being written, they’re warming up at Stade Roland Garros in Paris for the men’s final of the 2024 French Open.  It’s actually a pretty decent match-up with some potentially historic implications, as CNN’s Issy Ronald offered in a preview that dropped late last night:

World No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz has not yet lost a grand slam final in his young career, defeating Casper Ruud in the 2022 US Open final and Novak Djokovic in that epic five-set Wimbledon final last year.

And now, the 21-year-old Spaniard has an opportunity to make it three wins out of three and become the youngest men’s player to win a grand slam on all three surfaces when he takes on world No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the men’s singles French Open final on Sunday.

And the storyline for Spaniards is enhanced by the fact that Zverev was in the spotlight from the first round on, having drawn the Spanish legend Rafael Nadad, looking for one last run in what will likely be his final season in competitive tennis, as his first-round opponent.  Zverev quickly dismissed Rafa in straight sets, only the fourth tme in the 116 French Open matches he competed in where he came up a loser.

But for us Americans, only the hard-core tennis buffs would have known much about Zverev had it not been for his first-round match,  Like Alcaraz, he’s looking for his first-ever French Open title, but he hasn’t had the benefit of appearing in several prominent commercials the way Alcaraz has.

And on the women’s side, it’s been downright exciting, as THE ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Howard Fendrich recounted after yesterday morning’s proceedings:

For a few minutes, anyway, it seemed as if Iga Swiatek was a bit off in the French Open final against Jasmine Paolini. Swiatek kept making mistakes early Saturday, got broken in the third game and trailed at Court Philippe Chatrier.

Might a true surprise be in the offing? Could Paolini not only make a match of this, but actually win it? Um, no. Not even close. Not with the way Swiatek can dominate opponents, especially on red clay.  The top-seeded Swiatek quickly recalibrated her wayward strokes and simply overwhelmed Paolini, grabbing 10 games in a row en route to a 6-2, 6-1 victory that gave her a third consecutive championship at Roland Garros and fourth in five years.

This was on the heels of an even more emotionaly charged semifinal win that left America’s best hope for a title grumbling, as Ronald’s compatriot Matias Grez reported yesterday as well:

Coco Gauff has called for tennis to universally implement a Video Review system after she was reduced to tears following a controversial decision made by the umpire in her French Open semifinal defeat to Iga Świątek.

With Gauff leading 2-1 in the second set, a line judge called her return of serve “out” but the umpire overruled the decision. The American then argued the line judge’s call impacted her shot, but the umpire disagreed.

A tearful Gauff regained her composure to break Świątek’s serve but went on to lose 6-2 6-4 to the World No. 1.

“Tennis is the only sport where not only we don’t have the VR system, but a lot of times the decisions are made by one person. In other sports there are usually multiple refs making a decision,” Gauff told reporters.

Exciting stuff, to be sure.  But you would have to had worked really hard to find where it was all available, with this year presenting perhaps the greatest barrier to that discovery yet.

Since its inception, the Tennis Channel has utilized the French Open as perhaps its premier event, regularly whisking cable executives and sponsors to a Parisian junket on the heels of its upfront.  It used the tournament as a promotional wedge to gain full access to its “homes passed” footprint, temporarily bringing it line with the level of availability that ESPN had.  By being able to more than double its universe for the fortnight, it would regularly produce the largest audiences in a given year for any event carried by TTC, and would be used as a sales tool in the quixotic quest to make the channel as ubiquitously available as its arch-rival The Golf Channel. TGC is owned by Comcast, which has included it in most “basic” tiers for decades, unlike TTC.

I consulted with TTC several years back when those issues came to a head in the form of a lawsuit against Comcast.  I had the opportunity to look under their hood and candidly speak with several of their top executives about the challenges they had.  What I learned was that to the average sports fan, and certainly to the average MVPD executive, American prominence and a compelling storyline including a villain you like to hate-watch are far and away the biggest factors in determining demand and interest.

This year, aside from the Nadal blowout, top men’s seed and vaccine eschewer Novak Djokovic bowed out during his quarterfinal match, denying any chance of a rematch with Alcaraz from last fall’s U.S. Open.  Gauff’s controversial exit denied NBC a chance for a more compelling Breakfast At… matchup that the one they got.   Even so, the NBC window that once catapulted the sport to newfound heights of popularity when it was being covered by the prolific and eloquent Bud Collins has diminished greatly in both audience and prominence over the years.  Peacock?  Go to their home page; the French Open isn’t even on their home screen TODAY.  That distinction is reserved for another French event, Stage 8 of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling competition.

And Tennis Channel’s usual heavy marketing blitz has been virtually non-existent.  Perhaps it’s because that its owner, Sinclair Broadcasting, has been looking to unload a lot of its more valuable properties to make up for the missteps and losses they have encountered with its ill-fated purchase of what are now the Bally Sports Networks.  And Tennis Channel is indeed one of them.

Even the newspapers that would give the tournament a similar degree of attention and hype that is still common to the sport’s two summer events, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, have significantly cut back on their coverage.  No longer are the day’s top matches highlighted by either USA TODAY or THE NEW YORK TIMES.  Under the auspices of THE ATHLETIC, its sports section now has reduced tennis to a far lesser degree of prominence and frequency than the prior regime’s writers allowed.

So you’re forgiven if, like moi, you really weren’t paying this much attention.  Compared to the other Grand Slam events, it’s often the least compelling proposition–it concludes less than a month before the start of Wimbledon, there’s no true Grand Slam possibility yet emerging, and lacking the ESPN overlay of readily available multiple tiles offering dozens of options for daily streamers that one sees even with the likes of the Australian Open, it’s simply not as much in the zeitgeist as it arguably should be.   If this were a Beatle, this would arguably be George.  If this were a Marx Brother, it would arguably be Zeppo.

But there may just be hope on the horizon, as the Open made some media news as well, courtesy of a story which FORBES’ Adam Zagoria dropped  last night:

The French Open will have a new television home in the United States beginning in 2025.

The Grand Slam tournament is leaving NBC/Peacock and the Tennis Channel — which has a sublicensing deal with NBC — and will air on TNT, TBS and truTV as part of a 10-year, $650 million deal with Warner Bros. Discovery, according to The Athletic. The year’s second major tournament will also air on the Max streaming service and Bleacher Report digital platforms, as first reported by Variety.

As Variety noted, Warner Bros. Discovery has broadcast the French Open in Europe since 1989 as part of its massive Eurosport pay-TV networks.

And ironically, it will be on the same platform that now houses HBO, the network that started the tennis boom in the U.S. with its first-ever daytime coverage of Wimbledon sharing the wit and wisdom of BBC’s feed with the first generation of cable subscribers and compelling offices to subscribe to microwave links that provided over-the-top access for eager workers looking to watch something other than soap operas on their coffee breaks.

Alcaraz and Gauff are the sport’s future, and it’s reasonable to expect they will be prominently featured.  But they indeed have their work cut out for them,  As Zagoria reminds:

The news comes as WBD could lose the rights to broadcast NBA games on TNT next year, putting the future of the popular “Inside The NBA” in jeopardy.   

It’s the second “major” annoucement to come from WBD in the midst of still-ongoing negotiations with the NBA to secure at least some sort of presence with something they believe will constitute attractive sports content, with the threat of legal action being dangled by Adam Silver’s least favorite media executive, David Zaslav.  Zaslav has counterpunched, or so he’d like to think, with the sublicensing of the two first round college football playoff games, both of which will air against broadcast network NFL coverage on Saturday December 20th, and now the Roland Garros fortnight.  And while these may indeed occupy tiles on the Max home page–hopefully with more prominence than Peacock has displayed–it’s difficult to imagine there’s a bigger audience potential for Carlos and Coco than Lebron, Ant and the Chuckster.   Yosemite Zas may have far too unrealistic expectations for this to be seen as anything more than a bargaining chip using his pre-existing global connection and production efficiency (and boy does he LOVE Eurosport!) to lay down what in relative terms is a modest bet.  It will certainly help justify their presence in Venu, the streaming effort they will be partnering with Disney and FOX in that ostensibly will be available by next spring.

But will we care?  Will the average viewer indeed know where Roland Garros will be?  Will Max et al be allowed to put forth the kind of marketing effort that might be needed to message that after a year where the event was treated as an afterthought by just about every one with an oar in the water?

It’s your serve, Yosemite.  Bonne chance.

Courage…

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