ESPN’s largest single sports production of the year is getting even bigger.
The sports media giant is effectively adding another week to its 2019 U.S. Open tennis coverage by televising and streaming this week’s qualifying tournament.
Starting Aug. 20, ESPNEWS will offer six hours a day of qualifying coverage from five courts through Aug. 23.
The over-the-top ESPN+ streaming service launched daily coverage of qualifying action from five courts on Aug. 19 and will continue through Aug. 23.
TV coverage on ESPNEWS will also feature the live announcement of the men’s singles and women’s singles draw ceremony on Aug. 22.
“This is an annual commitment for us. We have monthly meetings before we’re allowed to take ownership of the venue, effectively on July 1,” said Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president of production, who oversees the network’s coverage of three of tennis’ four majors: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
The play-in qualifying tournament gives 128 men and women the chance to compete in the U.S. Open main draw, scheduled for Aug. 26 to Sep. 8 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y.
This year’s qualifier will feature former Top 15 players Tommy Robredo and Kirsten Flipkens. With $3.5 million in prize money up for grabs, the qualifier is itself the fifth-largest tennis tournament in the U.S.
Starting in 2018, the USTA expanded the U.S. Open to a three-week “festival” from a two-week tennis tournament. That includes this week’s “Fan Week,” which features music, player appearances and free admission to the qualifying tournament.
So why add another week of TV coverage to the season’s fourth and final major?
As the United States Tennis Association’s TV partner, ESPN saw an opportunity to support USTA’s expansion strategy — while also highlighting an important but largely ignored table-setter.
“We see it as a good opportunity to get people more excited about the U.S. Open,” explained John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions.
Forget Monday Night Football or the NBA Finals. It’s ESPN’s Emmy-winning first ball to the last ball coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament that takes the heaviest lifting. Consider:
— This year, ESPN will offer more than 160 hours of TV coverage from all 16 courts, plus another 1,300 hours streaming live on the ESPN app via ESPN+ and ESPN3. Chris McKendry returns as host while Chris Fowler will serve again as lead match-caller.
— To beam coverage to every corner of the globe, ESPN will employ three host sets, 19 control rooms and 177 cameras. ESPN will create 22,000 square feet of production space just for the U.S. Open.
— ESPN will have over 600 people on-site in Queens. This production team requires 9,500 pieces of technical equipment. Once the tournament gets underway, ESPNers in front of and behind the cameras often work 12 hours or more per day.
Said Reynolds: “It’s 750 people credentialed and working on it. When you just look at that workforce, and all the equipment here, it is the size and scope of one of the premier Olympic venues. And we do this every year.”
John Kosner, the former ESPN executive turned president of Kosner Media, thinks adding the qualifying tournament is a smart way to offer more complete coverage to tennis fanatics.
“Streaming enables you to super serve fans in any sport so expanding U.S. Open qualifying on ESPN+ is a smart move,” said Kosner.
With Serena Williams shooting for her 24th Grand Slam title against defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka, ESPN is expecting strong TV ratings.
Across ESPN and ESPN2, last year’s U.S. Open coverage averaged 1,037,000 viewers, up 9% from 2017. That was ESPN’s best TV numbers since 2015 when Williams’ sensational quest for a calendar-year slam ended in a stunning semifinals loss to Roberta Vinci.
The 2018 Women’s Finals will be long remembered for Williams’ explosive argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos. After the ump warned Williams for supposedly communicating with her coach, things escalated quickly.
“I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right,” Williams yelled at Ramos. “I have never cheated.” The USTA told the New York Times that Ramos will not ump any of her matches this year.
ESPN’s new TV show, Backstory, will examine the Williams vs. Ramos showdown and other famous sporting events.
ESPN started an 11-year, $770 million deal with USTA to put the U.S. Open completely on cable TV in 2015. CBS Sports had previously shown the tournament for 47 years.