By Barry Janoff
May 30, 2016: Despite a lot of rain, the absence of such stars as Roger Federer, Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova, Tennis Channel still has the sport's most captivating star, Serena Williams, in play at the French Open in Roland Garros.
Prior to its coverage of the two-week event in Paris (May 22-June 5), Tennis Channel aired all of 21 of Williams' previous Grand Slam singles wins, dating back to 1999 when she defeated Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open.
Now, Tennis Channel is in its tenth season of French Open coverage, and Williams is seeking her 22nd Grand Slam, which would tie her with Steffi Graf for second all-time and put her just two behind Margaret Court, who holds the all-time total among women and men (Federer has 17).
Tennis Channel, based in Santa Monica, Calif., was acquired earlier this year by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which then signed an agreement with the French Tennis Federation to extend their rights for the French Open to cover the full pay-TV run of the tournament. The agreement runs through 2023.
By the end of the tournament, Tennis Channel said its live coverage of match play would have increased by some 50 hours, from around 65 in 2015 to almost 110, with approximately 80% of all live, televised French Open competition exclusive to the network.
NBC retains the other 20%, with coverage also on NBC Sports Network via a deal signed in 2012 that runs through 2024, including both the women's and men's singles finals.
Tennis Channel has been supporting its French Open coverage with a cross-marketing platform aimed at generating awareness for the network’s coverage from a diverse demographic base of tennis fans.
The biggest marketing champaign for its French Open coverage has included TV, print, outdoor, Internet, social media and live activation.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Robyn Miller, who has been svp-marketing for Tennis Channel since 2007, about the pros and cons of marketing tennis, the affect that Sinclair Broadcast Group has had and will have on the company and the impact that Serena Williams has had on sports.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What has been the impact of Serena Williams and her quest for her 22nd Grand Slam on your coverage and on tennis?
Robyn Miller: We did the 21 Grand Slam programming and every time one was on it doubled our ratings from last year. She is so popular and such a draw for us. More than 90% of her matches have aired on Tennis Channel. Whenever she is on, it's great for us and great for our viewers. She is such an inspiration. She is so revered. When she wins her 22nd Grand Slam, we will be popping Champagne, if it's at the French Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.
It would even be more exciting if she could repeat what she did last year, winning three Grand Slams (Australian, French, Wimbledon before losing in finals of U.S. Open to lost to Roberta Vinci) because she would pass Steffi Graf at Wimbledon and then tie Court at the U.S. Open. It's amazing that she is 34 and is on top of the tennis world. She is a force of nature.
NYSJ: What has been the impact of Tennis Channel's purchase by Sinclair Broadcast Network during the French Open?
RM: With our French Open campaign, they are showing our promos across their platform. It's a level of impact, reach and exposure that we could not afford before. They want us to be in more homes. They already have negotiated agreements that would put us in more than 50 million homes this year. They are huge. And they are supportive of what we are doing. They have something like 175 stations. Whatever limitations we had before, now the sky is the limit. We are excited, and so are they.
NYSJ: How important has it been for Tennis Channel to take ownership of French Open coverage?
RM: It is our most important event of the year and we have definitely pulled out all the stops. It is our tenth year of French Open coverage and we are presenting it in the biggest way possible. It is the most comprehensive coverage in our history. We did not rest on our laurels. We improved the broadcast. We improved and expanded our digital coverage. We have more exclusive hours of coverage than ever. We added Tracy Austin to our roster of broadcasters and commentators, who already are all-stars. And our marketing has been reaching fans and consumers at every touch-point. There is no way that people will not know that Roland Garros is on Tennis Channel.
NYSJ: How big a role in marketing has it been to align with in-house networks in McDonald's, Best Buy, Walmart, and also reaching people through airport networks?
RM: We are in airports across the country and we are in major retailers, which is very important and very strategic. We are trying to reach people in as many places as possible. We have found this to be a great way to get our message across and have people retain and recall that message. If people are in an airport and they see a promotion about Tennis Channel and Roland Garros, it tends to resonate and have a lasting impact. And when you join that with Serena and her quest, the result is even better.
NYSJ: Do you get feedback from players and coaches that they watch Tennis Channel?
RM: We do. They love that there is a destination for all things tennis, and that there is a place for them to help build their image and the sport of tennis. A lot of the players are international, so they don't have Tennis Channel. But when they come to the U.S. to play, they can find Tennis Channel in their hotel rooms
ERric Abner (Tennis Channel executive director, PR): Two years ago, Novak Djokovic was playing at Indian Wells and was on Twitter from his hotel room that he was watching matches on Tennis Channel. So we do get a lot of that type of feedback.
NYSJ: Do you need to significantly adjust Tennis Channel coverage when you know that top players such as Caroline Wozniacki (injury) and Maria Sharapova (suspension) won't be there? (Editor's note: Roger Federer also withdrew from the Open, citing fitness issues, after this interview was conducted.)
RM: We don't have control over whether players drop out or, in Maria's case, are suspended. We do keep tabs on that. We have to adjust promotions and marketing so that we don't feature players in our ads who are not playing. We still went into Roland Garros with a strong lineup, especially with Novak and Serena as the No. 1 ranked players in the world. It makes for great drama when they are playing and someone is trying to take them down. But with Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal (Editor's note: Nadal withdrew due to injury last week) on the men's side and a group of great players on the women's side, there is always the potential for a lot of drama. And, of course, we always want to see the young players come up who might go farther in the tournament than anyone predicted.
"Our marketing has been reaching fans and consumers at every touch-point. There is no way that people will not know that Roland Garros is on Tennis Channel."
NYSJ: How important is it for tennis that may of the top players have created their own brands, such as Serena, Sharapova, Federer?
RM: It works well for us because many of the brands aligned with the players are featured on-air. Many of the high-end brands align very well with our audience. So it supports our coverage, gives the players areas for exposure to people who might not be hard-core tennis fans and helps to build the sport in a lot of areas off the court. It also helps that the international tennis players are known around the world, partly because of their (endorsement) deals, which generates interest for the sport.
NYSJ: Will there be any acknowledgment of the tragic events that occurred in Paris last year?
RM: We are scheduled to do an event in what is called one of the 'sensitive' areas in Paris with some of the city's underprivileged children and with the U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley at which some of the tennis courts in the city will undergo refurbishing.
NYSJ: How do you see the impact of Maria Sharapova's situation on the sport?
RM: I don't know what's going on in Maria's world right now. She won't be at Roland Garros. Among players, since her situation went public, players are more aware of situations, more aware of scrutiny from (governing bodies) and from the public and media.
NYSJ: What about Tennis Channel coverage of the Olympic Games?
RM: We will have coverage. Player profiles, features, updates on matches and news coverage. People can come to Tennis Channel not for live matches but for many other aspects of what is happening and what the players are doing.
NYSJ: Have you put any marketing plans in place for Wimbledon (June 27-July 10) and then the U.S. Open (Aug. 29-Sept. 11), where they are putting a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium in Billie Jean King National Tennis Center?
RM: We are working on those plans, as well as for Citi Open (Washington DC, July 16-24), which is our next big one after Wimbledon. We will have a big presence at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. They are important tournaments for us and, obviously, for players and for tennis. The new roof is going to make a big impact. Not just with weather issues, but players having to adjust to playing with the roof open and then when it closes. It will be interesting.
Tennis Channel Swings French Open Marketing, Serena Slam Quest Coverage
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