As part of a lucrative five-year global television deal that provided a needed cash infusion in 2016, the WTA sold the rights to its overseas tennis tournaments to beIN Sports, beginning with the 2017 season.
But it was fans who often paid the price. From the start, they were frustrated by beIN Sports’ often intermittent and inattentive coverage of women’s tennis, which was frequently relegated in the United States in favor of other sports, particularly soccer.
Eventually, WTA officials grew frustrated, too. The WTA cut short the United States portion of its worldwide rights deal with beIN Sports and returned to Tennis Channel in an agreement announced Monday.
The new five-year deal with Tennis Channel includes television and digital streaming components, giving ample real estate to the WTA tour, which now produces television broadcasts of more than 2,000 matches annually. Tennis Channel also holds the U.S. rights to the men’s tour.
The WTA and beIN had mutually agreed to end the American part of its contract less than 18 months after it started. The WTA put its U.S. broadcast rights back on the market in June; its partnerships with beIN Sports continue elsewhere.
“BeIN has a heavy focus on its professional team sports, the soccer relationships that they have,” said Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive. “Sitting down and looking at their strategies and ours, they saw that this would probably be a better situation for the WTA long-term.”
BeIN Sports is available in less than half as many American homes as Tennis Channel. And with beIN Sports, many pivotal weekend semifinal and final matches were pre-empted by the network’s soccer priorities.
The highest-profile match during beIN Sports’ tenure — Maria Sharapova’s return from a doping suspension in April 2017 — was abandoned midway through the first set in favor of a soccer game. Last month, when Naomi Osaka took the court in front of a home crowd in Tokyo for her first match since winning the U.S. Open, beIN Sports was showing an infomercial featuring Larry King.
Tennis Channel, which had held the WTA rights previously and continued to air American events, was awarded the rights over ESPN and Amazon, both of which would have focused more on streaming than television broadcasts.
Tennis Channel had not come close to matching beIN Sports’ bid in the previous rights cycle, offering less than 10 percent of what the Qatar-based network proffered.
Simon said that money was not as primary of a concern at present as it returned to Tennis Channel.
“This was not a financially driven discussion, at this point in time,” he said.
After the WTA signed the beIN Sports deal, Tony Carmody, a tennis fan from Wisconsin, started the website Tennis Watchers to help people navigate an increasingly complex streaming and broadcast landscape, which included a seven-month period without a dedicated WTA streaming service.
“It just seemed like it was more work to watch the WTA,” Carmody said.
Fans were more directly impacted by the problems than players, with occasional exceptions. Sloane Stephens, who missed the first six months of the 2017 season because of an injury, vented about beIN’s spotty coverage when she returned to tour.
“How annoying, you guys — I couldn’t watch any tennis!” Stephens said. “I was so pissed. I was watching, and they cut to some soccer match. I was like, ‘It’s 3-all in the third, what are you guys doing?’ It’d make you do illegal stuff, going to watch on a stream or something.”
Ken Solomon, chairman and chief executive of Tennis Channel, said any general sports network would struggle to give tennis the space it needs to flourish.
“In tennis, the value is in the continuity,” he said. “The storytelling from beginning of week to end of week is the key.”
Solomon said he heard frequent complaints from viewers who thought his network was making a concerted choice to show less women’s tennis, not realizing coverage had moved to the more obscure beIN Sports.
“People just assumed that we had everything,” Solomon said. “That expectation that we have everything is actually a responsibility.”
The lack of visibility came at a time when women’s tennis was in fascinating flux. Serena Williams, the sport’s biggest star, has played few tournaments in recent years, and eight different women have won the last eight Grand Slam singles titles.
In a study published last year by Sports Business Journal, women’s tennis was the only one of 24 sports measured for which its viewership grew younger between 2006 and 2016.
Simon said that there were stipulations in the new deal with Tennis Channel to provide equitable coverage of men’s and women’s matches.
“We’ll be well represented,” he said.
Solomon said that his network had been “naturally gender neutral,” given the comparable interest in men’s and women’s tennis among his viewers.
“Regularly, our highest-rated matches are women’s matches,” he said. “So it’s just a given.”