Picture the scene. It’s Wimbledon 2011, the fortnight of the Championships and three American television companies are prowling around the grounds of the All England Club, eyes firmly trained on each other, each desperate to learn if they have won the bid to have exclusive TV rights across the pond.
NBC were the ones in possession; ESPN and Fox the pretenders to the throne. It would come down to who delivered the best bid and in the end, it was ESPN who wrapped up a 12-year deal to show the Wimbledon fortnight live and uninterrupted.
In the first of an exclusive two-part interview, John Skipper, the president of ESPN and the nimber two on The Tennis Space’s People of Influence list, talks us through how the deal went down and what Wimbledon means for ESPN.
Getting Wimbledon was obviously a big coup. How long was it in the making?
It’s been ten-plus years in the making. I know we had discussions for several years with the All England Club before we got the first deal. From the first year we had the Championships, we had been trying to show the All England Club that we could do a great production, (that) our promotional might was worth their while (and) that we could also distribute the content across all these platforms. We’d been sort of auditioning to get all of Wimbledon for 10 years. Serious discussions took place over the last two or three years.
How did you finally get it done?
There was a week at Wimbledon last year that was high drama. It should be made into a television movie at some point because it was set up such that the award was going to be made at the event last year so I was there for 10 to 12 straight days as we were finalising our proposal, having some back and forth. Of course, NBC were there, Fox were there, so it was high drama. Everybody was around the club, we’d walk around, we’d see each other, we’d know that the other had just made a presentation. So it was 10-plus years in the making, 10 days of drama.
It sounds exhausting?
It was exhausting because we were also going out at night, we were watching a lot of tennis and we were producing a lot of tennis but I would say it was more exhilarating than exhausting. We knew that the All England Club liked what we were doing on television. We knew they loved our cross-platform. I had formed a really wonderful relationship with Ian Ritchie and Mick Desmond and we knew that they liked what we had to offer. We also knew however that the club had a long-standing loyalty to NBC, we knew that Fox had a very compelling proposition but we lived for that. It was great fun for us.
There are a lot of harder ways to make a living than being at Wimbledon for 10 days, trying to capture rights. That’s a pretty exhilarating experience. It’s a great memory for me, I have had few higher points than finding out on the Sunday of the final, having a champagne toast in the boardroom that we’d just captured all the rights to Wimbledon, shortly after the men’s final. That was pretty amazing.
The Wimbledon brand must help ESPN’s presence outside America?
Absolutely. The guys at the All England Club are sneaky innovative. Everybody thinks it’s all tradition and champagne and strawberries and nothing ever changes and the Queen and others sit in the box. (But) those guys have done as good a job as anybody I know of maintaining the tradition of a great event while continuing to innovate and be modern. Their matches are distributed across all platforms. They’ve got a roof. These guys are modern marketers. They really know how to do things. We knew that they were willing to take risks. They’re calculated in their risk-taking but we knew they might be willing to combine all the matches with one broadcaster. They are very smart.
So should we expect to see night matches under the roof in future?
We did not make any demands. Those guys have a track record, of when we have ideas, they will listen, they will react, they will make changes. So we felt very comfortable given the 12-year relationship, that we didn’t need (to make any demands). If they want to do some evening matches, we’re excited about that. But right now we are a very excited partner, we’re going to take the event this year and going to try to blow it out across all the ESPN platforms and put a lot of marketing behind it.
Of course, it gives us an unparalleled way to cross-promote matches and tell people what’s going on and of course it’s one home. People know where to come. We will do everything live, everything uninterrupted, all of which I think will be pretty appealing to the guys. We believe in presenting live sports when they happen. Last year, we were carrying matches and they went through to the NBC window and they (NBC) insisted we stop broadcasting the match. That doesn’t work for fans. Fans don’t want to be told, tune in later tonight to watch the conclusion of the match. This is not Batman from the sixties.