Published November 20, 2014
Chris Evert's father used to find out she won Wimbledon when she called him long distance after the final.
Technology and tennis fans' habits have evolved a bit since the 1970s. Now Evert returns from working at a Grand Slam and people say to her, "Are there like two or three different networks doing it? Because I get confused."
"They don't know what's going on, so they turn off the TV," she said last week.
All England Club officials set out to ensure that all matches would be broadcast live and by the same company in the United States under their new television contract. They agreed to a 12-year deal with ESPN last summer, ending a 43-year run on NBC.
The move to cable means the finals will air in fewer homes. But it does away with tape-delayed matches and makes the tournament easier to follow in the middle rounds.
ESPN had owned the rights to extensively televise the early rounds since 2003, with NBC picking up coverage as the tournament progressed. NBC, often criticized for not showing all the action live in every time zone, would have ditched the tape delays starting in 2014 using cable partner NBC Sports Network under its bid.
"We got bombarded with emails over the last four, five years of, 'Why can't I watch this match live?'" said Mick Desmond, commercial director at the All England Club. "I think that was a frustration for us because in nearly every other territory with our broadcast rights, people are watching live. In this day and age, you've got to provide a live proposition."
Jamie Reynolds, ESPN's vice president for event production, also noticed a shift in fans' expectations around 2007-08. That's when everybody seemed to get a smartphone, and with that the ability to check scores instantaneously, anywhere.
Live is especially crucial in the age of social media, when a casual fan may read on Twitter or Facebook that a match is in the 13th game of the fifth set or that Novak Djokovic is facing match point and decide to tune in.
"There's this unofficial promotional edge that's going, because sports is social currency," Reynolds said. "If you're in the moment, you're in the know. You know exactly where there's a tipping point where somebody has to get involved and engage."
The network's coverage starting next Monday will include simultaneous airings of quarterfinals on ESPN and ESPN2, the return of the "Breakfast at Wimbledon" moniker, and all televised courts shown on ESPN3.com.
"So that when you do happen to have a life outside of the time that you may spend six hours watching a gentlemen's final, you can still access your device if you're at a wedding — which I've been before to watch a Sharapova match or someone else," said Jason Bernstein, ESPN's senior director of programming and acquisitions.
To make sure fans aren't confused and turning off the TV, Bernstein said, the network's announcers must keep viewers informed of what's taking place on various courts and where to find those matches. Reynolds noted that they also need to realize many people tune in for only bits and pieces of the marathon coverage and want updates on what happened earlier.
Along with airing everything live, keeping the entire tournament with one company was critical, Desmond said.
"There's that sense of narrative," he said. "People know where to come back to. They know where to get everything and access everything. I think that was missing in our previous relationships."
Live means live in all time zones, even the West Coast. So a match starting at noon in London will begin at 7 a.m. in the Eastern time zone of the United States and 4 a.m. out West.
Ratings for the Wimbledon finals have fluctuated considerably depending on who's playing and how competitive the matches are. The new TV deal will test whether making the earlier rounds more accessible builds momentum for the last weekend.
John McEnroe, who like Evert will call matches for ESPN, understands the convenience of using tape delays but knows that just won't work anymore.
"The spontaneity of the moment for the fan — that's why people tune in is because they're not sure," McEnroe said. "Then you have to go around not wanting to know for God knows how long."
Follow Rachel Cohen at https://twitter.com/RachelCohenAP.