Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN served up an ace in its battle with Comcast Corp. for television sports supremacy.
By landing all the television and digital rights to the prestigious Wimbledon tennis tournament, ESPN dealt a blow to the corporate parent of NBC and the cable sports channel Versus.
Comcast, which recently shelled out $4.3 billion to outbid ESPN and hold on to the Olympics through 2020, has been looking to turn Versus into a legitimate contender to ESPN.
The deal also brings an end to broadcast coverage of Wimbledon. ESPN had been carrying Wimbledon for nine years, but the finals and semifinals had been broadcast by NBC for over 40 years. Now the finals will be seen on ESPN and rerun on Disney's ABC.
Terms of the contract between ESPN and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club were not disclosed, but people familiar with the agreement said the 12-year deal has a value of about $480 million.
Comcast fought hard to hold serve with Wimbledon. The NBC deal for the tournament expired with this year's event, which concluded Sunday, whereas ESPN's cable deal still had two more years to go. NBC wanted to extend its broadcast deal for two years and then move the cable rights to Versus. News Corp.'s Fox also aggressively went after Wimbledon.
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, however, wanted Wimbledon to have one home and didn't want to wait two years for that to happen.
"We felt it was very important to have a single narrative across the two weeks of the championship," said Ian Ritchie, the club's chief executive.
One of the deciding factors in sealing the deal was ESPN's willingness to air many of the Wimbledon matches live, rather than using tape delay, as NBC does. Tennis fans have been unhappy with NBC for delaying the telecast of the matches, as it has done in favor of its "Today" show.
"We want to see as many games live and on TV as can be managed," said Ritchie, adding that this was something he had discussed with NBC for some time.
"I'm sure tape delay has its place, but certainly in my mind live is preeminent," he said.
In addition to airing more of the tournament on its various cable channels, ESPN plans to make Wimbledon coverage available on digital platforms, including mobile. However, the finals will not be streamed live on the Internet.
Although ratings for Wimbledon are lower than for baseball and football, it attracts an affluent audience that advertisers pay top dollar to reach. Luxury cars and financial services firms are among its biggest advertisers.
ESPN's snagging of all Wimbledon rights comes just weeks after Comcast outbid it to keep the Olympics through the next decade.
"We are cognizant of the fact that Comcast is a formidable competitor," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content. "It doesn't really change the nature of what we do."