It has been an anxious summer in Burbank, Bristol and the rest of the Disney-ESPN empire thanks to ongoing cutbacks, movie box office disappointments and strategic uncertainties. Disney stock recently sank to a nine-year low.
Help is on the way, though, as the U.S. Open Tennis Championships kick off Monday and college football and the NFL also deliver their annual fall injections of must-see live events.
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While football’s benefits are well-documented, the U.S. Open has more quietly become an annual late-summer highlight for ESPN, which began exclusive carriage of it in 2015. This year’s tournament will follow last year’s burst of momentum, as the average of 1.2 million viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 delivered the biggest audience since 2019. Total viewership increased 50% among all viewers and 62% among 18-to-49-year-olds.
The upswing caught the attention of ad buyers, and inventory for the two-week tournament has been sold out for months. More than 20 sponsors and nearly 150 advertisers have come aboard across 75 categories, both in linear and digital. Of the 20 sponsors, 14 are official sponsors of the United States Tennis Association, the biggest overlap yet between the media company and the tournament’s presenting organization, according to Disney Advertising.
“The remarkable range of marquee sponsorships and sellout of advertising inventory underscores the unparalleled appeal and reach of this iconic tournament,” Adam Monaco, EVP Sales, Disney Advertising, said in a press release. “By elevating the fan experience across both linear and digital platforms, in collaboration with our brand partners, we are setting new standards of innovation and excitement, all while delivering access to world-class tennis.”
It helps, of course, that the narrative of both men’s and women’s professional tennis in recent years has been consistently fascinating. Novak Djokovic has outdueled longtime rivals Roger Federer (now retired) and Rafael Nadal (out this year with a knee injury) to reach 23 career major titles, one shy of the all-time record. Serena Williams also won 23 majors before ending her remarkable run with a third-round loss at last year’s Open. Her farewell in primetime drew 4.6 million viewers, a record for any tennis match in ESPN’s 43-year history.
New blood has also come in to the sport, with 20-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz winning his first major at the 2022 U.S. Open and then upsetting Djokovic at Wimbledon in July. Coco Gauff, 19, made the women’s quarterfinals last year in Queens and enters this year’s tournament on a hot streak.
More than 260 hours of Open coverage are planned on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes, with more than 550 matches on ESPN+ and ESPN3. ABC for the first time will air the tournament live on September 3, with a slate of matches in the Round of 16. Dual network primetime coverage is slated for August 29-30, with ESPN focused on Arthur Ashe Stadium and ESPN on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Even though the Billie Jean King Tennis Center is in the outer borough of Queens, it still draws a healthy mix of notable attendees. Ben Stiller, Kendall Jenner, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anne Hathaway were among those spotted attending last year. Many fans, whether in person or at home, are seduced by the sheer unpredictability of tennis, which doesn’t have a set timetable. Many matches go late into the New York night, with crowds famous for their raucous energy compared with more genteel environments for the sport. En route to last year’s title, Alcaraz beat Jannik Sinner in a quarterfinal match ending at 2:50 a.m., the latest finish in tournament history.
Asked during a media conference call how he prepares for late nights and long hours, ESPN analyst John McEnroe shrugged, “We’re backseat drivers, which is a pretty good gig, so we have the easy job. But the only thing that’s important, I think, is to keep up some energy, obviously, and so you just do that.”
Fellow commentator Chris Evert said one plus is that on-air talent generally isn’t asked to handle morning matches if they have been up past midnight. “ESPN paces us, which is good,” she said.
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