It is also the rare sport that women watch in equal or greater numbers than men and with significant parity in the players they watch. Women watch men, men watch women, and men and women play in many of the same major events, and sometimes compete together in mixed doubles.
And yet with fierce competition from other sports and from the seemingly endless options for entertainment through streaming and other services, no one in tennis believes standing still is an option.
“If you don’t grow, you are going backward,” said Micky Lawler, president of the Women’s Tennis Association, which organizes the women’s pro tour. The WTA’s events moved to the Tennis Channel two years ago. “We have to grow.”
Doing that with a far more limited presence on ESPN represents both a new challenge and a shift in strategy for tennis leaders, who grew frustrated with being the small fish in the ESPN ocean, except during the Grand Slams.
In recent years, ESPN determined that televising the next tier of tennis tournaments, including events near Palm Springs and in Miami, Cincinnati and Canada, did not fit with its focus on the biggest stages in sports, according to a person familiar with the network’s strategy who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to harm the network’s relationships with tennis officials. Carrying the non-Slam tournaments was also conflicting with other sports that garnered larger audiences. A long tennis match could cut into college basketball or even a Little League World Series game, or vice versa.
That does not happen on a network solely dedicated to tennis, but there are significant trade-offs.
ESPN is available in more than 80 million cable television households, and more than eight million subscribe to its streaming service. Tennis Channel became widely available only in 2016, when Sinclair acquired the network. It is now available in 60 million homes. It, too, offers a streaming subscription, but does not release figures for it. Also, through coverage on “SportsCenter” and on its website, and plugs during other sporting events, ESPN can deliver far-reaching promotional opportunities that a specialized network like the Tennis Channel struggles to match. ESPN tends to give more editorial exposure to sports and events it televises.
Tennis officials say fighting for airtime on ESPN and hoping a college football fan will stumble into fandom of Stefanos Tsitsipas, the rising star from Greece, represents an outdated understanding of how and why people, especially young people, consume media and follow sports. Also, the indeterminate length of matches and a disjointed global schedule, with tournaments taking place at random hours, all over the world, every day for 11 months, make the sport a better fit for a singular media home.