A week into the U.S. Open, it doesn't look like The U.S. Tennis Association's decision to livestream its event coverage this year hasn siphoned off viewers (or ad dollars) from network television. But its terrestrial television distribution is causing some confusion for viewers.

USA Networks, which has long had a television partnership with the USTA to air the Open, this year dropped the event because of a shift in its editorial focus. Now coverage is being split between CBS, ESPN2 and Tennis Channel.

Thanks to record interest in the tennis competition this year, viewership numbers are up across platforms. But it's a good thing that the U.S. Open is streaming all matches live online, because viewers watching on television have found themselves bumped out of coverage that runs past its alloted time slot with nowhere to go to see matches to completion.

Unlike other major sporting events that run long on network television, viewers watching on CBS have repeatedly been forced to go hunting for tennis on other networks. Often, that means looking for the Tennis Channel, which has a paltry 25 million viewers. (And in New York, where the Open is happening, the channel is not available to some viewers, due to contractual difficulties with CableVision and Time Warner Cable.)

The New York Times writes:

"The situation came into focus Saturday at 6 p.m. Eastern, when CBS signed off at its appointed time early in the Andy Roddick-John Isner match. Fans would have been happier if CBS stayed on, or if the handoff had gone to ESPN2, which has 98.6 million subscribers but was carrying college football and Nascar."

Despite the setbacks, the USTA's strategy of tennis in as many places as possible is paying off financially. Attendance and interest in the event is up this year. A record of 423,427 fans attended the first week alone. That's more viewers than have attended an entire Open snce 1991. Daily crowds were in excess of 61,000 on three separate days.

CBS sold close to 90% of its U.S. Open tennis commercial inventory by the end of August, which was already on par with last year before the event began. On ESPN, the audience across the daily marathon 10-plus hours telecasts is 13% larger than last year, up from an average of 584,000 households to 658,000. Meanwhile, Tennis Channel’s inaugural broadcast of the Open on Saturday, Sept. 5, was the most highly viewed program in the nascent network’s history.

USopen.org received a record of 23.3 milliion visits in the first week. And increased livestreaming results with 6.4 million streams. Unique visitors rose to 5,352,08, up 60 percent over 2008, with more than 23 million visits, according to stats provided by the USTA. On the streaming side, 6.4 million streams were activated during nearly 1.4 million media console launches. Average time open: 3 hours and 10 minutes. The US Open’s iPhone app, downloaded 175,361 times, offered live radio and non-match video on demand, including press conferences.

Various rivalries and upsets during the Opten have led to increased consumer interest in the event. There are also economic factors. Though these from Newsweek should be taken with a grain of salt:

"For the merely rich, 'a day of tennis isn't like going to Europe or buying a new car,' says Pam Shriver, a tennis commentator for ESPN who also runs an annual tennis charity event. And for the ultrarich, though they may be curbing purchases of yachts and airplanes, 'tennis is more comfortable,' she notes."

If the USTA is benefitting from "merely rich" and "ultrarich" viewers choosing tennis over vacations, more power to them. As for their television viewers, it looks like an increase in the popularity of tennis has overridden any network confusion that could have tanked their numbers. And they've worked in an escape clause that will prove more effective in years to come. If the terrestrial television problems don't work themselves out, tennis fans can go online to watch the Open.

Image: AFP

Meghan Keane

Published 9 September, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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