It’s no secret that women’s tennis gets less air time than the men’s on television in the Gulf region.
And while you can easily catch an ATP first round in Halle or Queen’s, finding a Serena Williams opener at a WTA tournament live on TV here is often a fool’s errand.
The reason is that the current deal between the WTA and beIN Sports – the main rights-holder in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – only mandates that the network air the matches from the quarter-finals onwards of Premier-level tournaments.
That means a maximum of seven women’s matches are broadcast on beIN from one tournament.
So if a big star loses in an early round, or you want to follow a lesser-known female player who is unlikely to make it to the latter stages of a WTA event, you wouldn’t expect to find it on TV.
But that is going to change come next season as the WTA have signed a five-year multi-territory deal with beIN Sports that will allow the network to have access to four times as many matches as it does right now.
The agreement gives beIN broadcast rights for all WTA tournaments, including 21 Premier events, the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, and 28 International-level tournaments in over 30 territories worldwide including Spain, the USA, Australia and the MENA region.
It comes after another big move in the world of tennis from beIN, who have secured the rights for Wimbledon this year, after outbidding previous holders, Abu Dhabi Sports.
“Now we’ve stepped up our game, and our mandate is that every main draw singles match is produced across every tournament and we’ve increased our number of minimum World Feed matches across every tournament,” WTA Media managing director John Learing (right) told Sport360.
“So someone like beIN will be able to access almost four times as many matches as they currently are able to.”
According to Learing, the beIN agreement will allow the WTA to reach more diverse demographics and potentially increase the fan-base in key markets such as the United States and France.
The deal ties in with the start of the WTA’s new partnership with leading digital sports content and media group, Perform, creating WTA Media – the tour’s dedicated media arm.
The live media rights and production deal is worth $525m over 10 years (from 2017 to 2026), the largest in the history of women’s sports.
The WTA have aggregated the majority of its international broadcast rights under one umbrella, and will be producing for television every singles match at every tournament.
“It’s new for tennis,” said WTA CEO Steve Simon. “The WTA had the foresight to pool all of its international rights. The domestic rights are still controlled by the local tournaments.
“But the international rights are now in one pool and we sold them together so that we could go on in and now commit to producing each and every match as well as deliver it to a partner such as beIN. So we are the only one that’s done that so far in tennis and I think it’s terrific and good for everybody.
“It’s obviously a lot of product and I think the one thing that makes tennis a little bit unique is that we have live, new product, seven days a week for 43 weeks out of the year, so that’s great value as well.”
Besides the increased access to produced matches, broadcasters now get the added benefit of localisation.
If Oman’s Fatma Al Nabhani or Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur are playing a first round in Doha on an outside court that is usually not televised, under the new deal, Qatar’s beIN can choose to broadcast their matches in order to cater for its viewers in the Gulf region.
“It’s also the beauty of the broadcasters that we are partnering with now in 2017 and beyond, they also have incredibly progressive OTT (over-the-top) platform footprints and so those matches that might not be available on television, will be available across their digital and their OTT service,” added Learing.
“So most broadcasters, and beIN of course are leading this, are committing not just the linear play but the digital play as well.”
The WTA started the process of selling their new bundle of rights to different markets around eight months ago and according to Learing’s estimates, they’ve got 70 per cent of the world covered at the moment.
“We’re currently in 177 territories or countries with our broadcast plan and the goal is to meet or beat that by January 2017. We’ll be darn close to beating that,” says Learing.
The investment put into producing all these matches is obviously a huge commitment but Learing believes it is already paying off.
Simon says the beIN deal is “one of the largest deals that we’ve done” while Learing explains how the new set-up is meant to be beneficial for everyone.
“It is paying off,” says Learing. “We’re trying to put as much money back into the tournaments’ pocket as possible so we’re giving each tournament across the WTA a couple of options.
“One option is that WTA Media, a production company we’re in the process of creating right now, will come on-site and produce all of your matches at no cost to the tournament.
“However we also know that many tournaments have long-term existing relationships with their host broadcasters, so we don’t ever want to get in the way of that.
“So if a tournament wants to continue that arrangement, WTA Media will contribute a set price towards the production of every single one of those matches.
“It is a much larger investment in production no matter which way, or which decision you choose, but WTA is making the financial commitment to make it work for as many as possible without them spending one more cent on production. And so far we’ve found our tournaments to be incredibly receptive.
“We had well over half of our tournaments accept our offer to become their host broadcaster, and for those who aren’t able to or want to continue with their current host, they’re very receptive to our contribution.”
I went on a field trip to Roehampton on Friday to catch the final round of Wimbledon qualifying and it really is an experience every tennis fanatic/hipster should venture upon one day.
The qualifying matches for Wimbledon are played at the Bank of England Sports Ground, about four miles away from the All England Club, and the contrast in both venues could not be any more striking.
Making it through the qualifying rounds in Roehampton into the main draw at Wimbledon must feel like a football player moving from a third division club straight into Real Madrid – not because of a leap in competition level but because of the massive upgrade the players would get to experience once they’ve left behind the wilderness of the Bank of England Sports Ground and stepped into the swanky All England Club premises.
After navigating the large, soggy, rain-soaked field that reminded me of where my elementary school sports day was held when I was a kid, I got to the courts that are stuck side-by-side with nothing separating them except narrow aisles where ball kids take naps and spectators stand to watch one match, with their backs to another one taking place just behind them.
There were no seats, since apparently the chairs rented by the venue had to be returned yesterday because play was meant to end on Thursday, but was pushed over due to the rain (a fact disclosed by the always inquisitive Ben Rothenberg).
I took one of the players’ chairs from the vacant court behind me and turned it around in the narrow aisle – making sure I didn’t step on any sleeping ball kids – to watch the clash between Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat and Frenchman Tristan Lamasine, and gave it back when the players showed up for their match and needed the seat. I watched the rest of the Safwat match standing up – something you should be prepared to do if you visit Roehampton.
Just to get an idea of how close the courts are to one another, I was watching Safwat play on Court 7 while overhearing a conversation between Dennis Novak and umpire Eva Asderaki on Court 8 about the two black stripes in the Austrian’s otherwise white cap, which apparently violated Wimbledon’s all-white rule (which was funny considering we were in Roehampton not Wimbledon). ITF supervisor Laura Ceccarelli was brought in to weigh in on the matter before Novak was forced to change into a different all-white cap provided by the tournament.
The “big” matches in Roehampton are played on a couple of courts next to a small slope where spectators can sit on the grass to watch. Think of it as a miniature Henman Hill but without the crowds nor the home star to cheer on. A feature match next to that slope on Friday was between Novak and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.
The press centre is made up of two tiny trailer-like boxes – albeit with incredibly friendly staff – while the players’ area is a glassed-off tent crammed with competitors and their coaches. The surface of the courts is far from the pristine lawns of the All England Club, with the balls barely bouncing and players often falling face down.
If Wimbledon is tennis’ royal palace, Roehampton is the grass tennis’ ghetto that makes sure lower-ranked players remember where they came from before earning a place amongst the elite.
I watched Safwat lose and miss out on becoming the first Egyptian to feature in the Wimbledon main draw since 1980, before I took a car back to the All England Club.
It may have been a 10-minute ride but both venues are truly worlds apart.
French Open champion Garbine Muguruza was dealt a tough hand as she was drawn to take on tricky Italian Camila Giorgi in the first round at Wimbledon.
A runner-up last year at the All England Club, Muguruza returns to SW19 as the No2 seed after winning her first grand slam title in Paris three weeks ago.
Defending champion Serena Williams was drawn in the same half as former finalist and No3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, and the American could get No31 seed Kristina Mladenovic in the third round, in what would be a rematch of their tight encounter at the French Open third round four weeks ago.
Svetlana Kuznetsova (13) or Sloane Stephens (18) could take on Serena in the last-16 but the former will first have to tackle ex-world No1 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round.
In the quarters, Serena could square off with sixth-seeded Roberta Vinci, the woman who ended her calendar year Grand Slam hopes last year in the US Open semi-finals.
Should Radwanska make it to a projected last-four showdown with Williams, the Pole must first get through the likes of Mallorca champion Caroline Garcia (30) in the third round, and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova (10) or 2013 junior Wimbledon winner Belinda Bencic (7) in the last-16.
Bencic missed the French Open with a back injury and has a worrying first round with two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, Tsvetana Pironkova, who also made the last quarter-finals at the French Open earlier this month.
In the opposite half of the draw, Australian Open champion and No4 seed Angelique Kerber could face fifth-seeded Simona Halep in the quarter-finals but must first dismiss local favourite Laura Robson in the first round.
Kerber or Halep are possible semi-final foes for Muguruza, who has a potential third round with No28 seed Lucie Safarova in the third round, should she get past Giorgi in her opener.
Five-time Wimbledon champion and No8 seed Venus Williams, could await Muguruza in the quarter-finals.
Women’s first rounds to watch:
Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS x13) v Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)
Petra Kvitova (CZE x10) v Sorana Cirstea (ROU)
Belinda Bencic (SUI x7) v Tsvetana Pironkova (BUL)
Angelique Kerber (GER x4) v Laura Robson (GBR)
Venus Williams (USA x8) v Donna Vekic (CRO)
Lucie Safarova (CZE x28) v Bethanie Mattek-Sands (USA)
Garbine Muguruza (ESP x2) v Camila Giorgi (ITA)
Women’s projected quarter-finals (according to seeding):
Serena Williams (USA x1) v Roberta Vinci (ITA x6)
Agnieszka Radwanska (POL x3) v Belinda Bencic (SUI x7)
Simona Halep (ROU x5) v Angelique Kerber (GER x4)
Garbine Muguruza (ESP x2) v Venus Williams (USA x8)
Serena has some familiar foes in that section, but she should come through unscathed. Vinci on the other hand could fall to Riske in the first round.
Sport360 quarter-final pick: Serena Williams v Coco Vandeweghe
So many upset alerts in this section with Bencic not in form and coming back from injury, Konta, Puig and Cibulkova all coming late to Wimbledon due to their runs in Eastbourne this weekend. Radwanska also not in peak form.
Sport360 quarter-final pick: Caroline Garcia v Petra Kvitova
Tough to expect much from Halep, who had left Achilles’ problems that ruled her out of Birmingham, and Kerber made quarters there but is also in questionable form.
Sport360 quarter-final pick: Madison Keys v Karolina Pliskova
A relatively tame section. Should Muguruza overcome a tricky opener against Giorgi, she should have a clear path to semis.
Sport360 quarter-final pick: Venus Williams v Garbine Muguruza