Why is it so Hard to Watch Women’s Tennis?
The support for women’s tennis by television networks and broadcast streaming services alike has been subpar, to say the least.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: May 10, 2017 • 10:47 AM ET
Maria Sharapova’s compelling match against Eugenie Bouchard was nowhere to be found on network television.
Tennis Channel’s talking heads were on a roll. They’d covered live morning men’s matches from Madrid, a proving ground for the upcoming French Open. Then, they paused and threw in a few comments on a must-see TV grudge match between Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard from the same tournament.
It didn’t matter that the score was 5-5 in the first set. But it did matter that the match was underway and wasn’t being broadcast. Not on Tennis Channel, ESPN or any of its sub-products, or another cable network commonly distributed by suppliers.
Was Tennis Channel abdicating its responsibilities?
If Tennis Channel couldn’t show a women’s match of this caliber, what the heck were fans supposed to do?
Perhaps the simple answer is, it’s complicated. So, let’s back up.
In September 2016, the Women’s Tennis Association cut ties with TennisTV, an online streaming subscription service that’s owned by the Association of Tennis Professionals (men’s tour). The Women’s Tennis Association then signed a five-year contract with beIN Sports because it outbid the Tennis Channel for licensing rights on tournaments outside the United States.
“All singles matches at all tournaments are now produced by the WTA’s broadcast partner [beIN],” The New York Times reported early this year.
In October 2016, these changes all came about because the WTA announced the launch of its “WTA Networks, a new digital and marketing division that will deliver tennis fans the highest quality on and off court content available anywhere.”
Included in this expansion was its own subscription streaming service, which was supposed to be up-and-running in April. Unfortunately for fans, nothing has materialized, leaving them to fend for themselves.
BeIN has broadcast women’s matches from Madrid this week, but only from the main court, which Bouchard and Sharapova graced for three hectic hours of play on Monday. However, to view its streaming matches, viewers must also subscribe to a high-tier sports package from their cable provider. And if their cable provider doesn’t carry beIN, then they’re out of luck. And because beIN has less visibility than Tennis Channel, it makes sense that not many cable providers carry it.
Another problem with beIN — it’s scheduling leans favorably toward European football. In fact, it has cut off women’s tennis matches before they’ve finished and switched to football.
Some fans have settled for watching scores, as a match progresses. When it’s over, they skip to YouTube hoping to catch a video of the match before it’s taken down by the WTA, as it tries to keep its promise of “acting like any other professional league.” In other words, control viewership.
Tennis Channel isn’t completely out of the picture, either. It offers ‘TCPlus,’ a live streaming app. Viewers don’t have to subscribe to a high-tier sport package from their cable provider, either. They can just download the app from Tennis Channel’s website, after paying the annual fee of $89.99 US. Before you buy, though, check out the programming schedule. Many women’s matches aren’t listed.
Others have become so despondent about WTA promises and a lack of access to women’s matches that they’ve stopped searching for streams, backing away from illegal sites, some of which are closely associated with betting.
And, as much as TennisTV was liked by fans for men’s and women’s matches, many subscribers have cancelled it because they can’t justify the cost without the women’s component.
In early March at The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., WTA CEO Steve Simon tried to explain the delays in its launch of the WTA Network.
Speaking like a top-notch executive, he spun a story of delay, couched in terms of strategic decision-making. BeIN, it seemed, was a short-term fix for a long-term strategy of which would include broadcast, data and digital rights that were coming up for negotiation in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The need to control all these rights would maximize efforts in the marketplace.
But, here’s the kicker, “We’re currently negotiating with several partners which will take over the streaming side on a global basis and we’ll then be back streaming hopefully before the end of the year,” Stuart Fraser of The Times reported.
So the April date has been pushed to possibly the end of the year. What a debacle.
While the WTA tries to figure out the marketplace for viewing women’s tennis and how best to serve it, fans are left out to dry. And not only are fans cut off, women’s tennis is cut off, especially in the U.S.
To understand the depth of this separation, we only have to review what happened in January when American Serena Williams, winner of a record 23 Grand Slams, was nowhere to be seen on television when she played for the first time in four months. Instead, and if people were willing to be resourceful and take huge risks, they might have found a stream. But God only knows what came embedded in those streams. The best Malware might not have been enough.
So, no matter the lofty goals and vision the WTA might have on its road to glory, the execution has been marked with potholes. The mishmash of leadership and lack of understanding of how tennis fans want to and can watch the sport has crippled the women’s tour. And, come to find out, Tennis Channel did not abdicate its responsibility to air the Sharapova/Bouchard match from Madrid yesterday.
But the WTA lost another round in trust and fandom because the match between Sharapova and Bouchard was a gem that no one watched in large enough numbers.
Here was six-foot-two, five-time slam champion Sharapova in Madrid with a wildcard acceptance for only her second tournament back after a 15-month doping suspension. Across the net was six-foot Bouchard, trying to pump-up a lackluster career against a woman she’d never beaten, to revive a career that started with a bang in 2014 but had since sunk to a dull ranking of No. 60.
Bouchard’s new coach, Tomas Hogstedt, coached Sharapova for years. He knew her intimately, which was a plus for Bouchard’s game strategy. But, most important, Bouchard had called Maria a ‘cheater’ and a ‘cheat’ when she debuted in Stuttgart a couple weeks back, adding that Sharapova should be banned for life from tennis.
What a stage for a luck-of-the-draw face off, a grudge-match extraordinaire. By the way, Bouchard won, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in three hours.
Simon and everyone involved with the wobbling, yet-to-be-realized WTA Networks should take a close look at the cost of delay. If it doesn’t quickly change the course of the unveiling, an uprising could soon follow within the organization. The one consolation for fans of women’s tennis — Grand Slams are under the control of ESPN and Tennis Channel, no matter the gender.