Tennis Channel Gets French Open Rights

Published: August 24, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) -- The Tennis Channel is buying the U.S. cable TV rights to the French Open previously held by ESPN2, giving the fledgling network a Grand Slam tournament for the first time and an event it hopes will help increase its reach.
The agreement, announced Thursday, begins in 2007 and can run for up to nine years. It also gives The Tennis Channel U.S. rights in all media for the clay-court tournament, including broadband and video-on-demand, plus access to archives of past matches.
''We are looking at this not as a chunk of programming for two weeks to fill a morning, but rather as a year-round content partnership,'' The Tennis Channel's chairman and CEO Ken Solomon said in a telephone interview.
The Tennis Channel went on the air in 2003 and is in nearly 10 million households; it's available in another 40 million that don't subscribe. ESPN2, which aired the French Open from 1986-93 and 2002-06, is seen in 90.6 million homes.
NBC owns the U.S. broadcast rights to the French Open, which begins in late May.
Solomon wouldn't disclose how long the deal is or how much it will cost, other than to say: ''More than we've paid for anything else. ... It's a price worthy of a Grand Slam and all that it can do for this company.''
ESPN2 has been billing itself as the Grand Slam network, because it also airs the Australian Open and Wimbledon. And it's possible that some part of the French Open could still wind up on ESPN2, because The Tennis Channel's arrangement allows it to sub-license its TV rights.
That could lead to cross-promotion that would help The Tennis Channel.
Solomon likened this deal to Fox's acquisition of NFL rights in 1994, which helped that broadcaster attract viewers. Solomon worked for Fox at that time.
''We have pretty high hopes. ... I think this is going to grow our distribution,'' he said. ''Nothing drives distribution like top-tier pro sports.''
Solomon said his channel will expand the number of hours of French Open coverage. ESPN2 aired 93 hours of live tennis from this year's tournament, drawing an average of more than 300,000 households per telecast, according to ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz.
''We have enjoyed televising the French Open, and ESPN will continue its strong commitment to tennis,'' Krulewitz said.
The Tennis Channel already airs portions of dozens of other tennis tournaments, but this is its first chance to show live action from one of the sport's four premier events.
''This is our first one,'' Solomon said. ''Could we theoretically make a grab for others that are coming? Absolutely.''