AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When the lights went on and the cameras started rolling on the 2017 women’s tennis season, much of the action could not be seen.
After changes to the WTA tour’s streaming and television platforms, women’s tennis matches often proved difficult or impossible to find for many fans during the star-studded opening days of the season. In perhaps the most jarring example, Serena Williams’s first match in four months, last week at the ASB Classic in Auckland, was not available to watch in the United States unless you were resourceful enough to find a pirated stream.
The gaps in coverage were created when the WTA took its overseas tournaments from Tennis Channel to the less visible beIN Sports and left the ATP-owned digital streaming platform TennisTV. The WTA intends to start its own subscription streaming service, but that is not expected to be ready until April, at the earliest.
Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, said that consolidating the organization’s rights was a priority, a departure from its previous arrangement, which at times amounted to subletting from the men’s tour. There has been progress on some fronts: All singles matches at all tournaments are now produced by the WTA’s broadcast partner.
“We’re embarking this year on an initiative that is a long time coming, and that is taking control and acting like any other professional league,” Simon said. “We’re taking care of our broadcast — and I’m using that as a broad term — in a manner where we now have more control over it, rather than tagging along.”
But the tour has limited distribution at the moment, and the explanation for the new broadcast landscape has been piecemeal, adding to fan confusion and frustration. The five-year, 30-country television deal with beIN was announced during last year’s French Open in May. The ATP announced in September that TennisTV would carry only men’s events this season. Simon revealed in an interview in October that the WTA’s own streaming platform would not be ready until the second quarter of this year, at the earliest.
Simon said the gap in streaming coverage was unavoidable.
“I would rather have a little bit of a dark period and do it right than not have the ability to do what we need to do long term,” Simon said. “Short-term pain for long-term gain.”
Digital streaming has become ubiquitous across professional and amateur sports, down to many high school teams. In the players’ lounge at the Auckland tournament, for example, a computer was tuned to a stream from the North American Hockey League, a second-tier junior league, where Barbora Stefkova’s brother was competing in a game between two Minnesota teams. A similar stream of her tennis matches would not have been available.
The most devoted women’s tennis fans have come to expect blanket coverage across Tennis Channel and subscription streaming platforms. When Williams’s match on Tuesday proved inaccessible, some adventurous fans found a stream on a Ukrainian betting site.
Briana Foust, a tennis blogger from Columbia, S.C., was among those who used the Ukrainian site, and found it be an ordeal.
“I was so frustrated shutting down malware pop-ups that I asked myself, ‘Why bother watching?’” Foust said. “Meanwhile, the WTA has seemed nonchalant in their public relations responses, including the latest one telling fans to ‘stay tuned.’ Honestly, I’m looking for a reason to not tune out.”
Janice Deringer described herself as a “lifelong fan that is about to give up.”
“Why should I have to lurk around the internet or the dark internet?” she said. “I would be happy to pay for quality access. I just can’t have it.”
While many players were unaware of the newly shifted landscape, others had heard complaints from those back home. The veteran Barbora Strycova said that the WTA’s departure from TennisTV meant her first match had not been available to watch anywhere in her native Czech Republic, leaving her boyfriend, mother and grandmother to forage for illicit online streams.
“For women’s tennis, it’s really bad, I have to say,” she said. “They want to help, and they try to help, but this is not a good way, to not broadcast any tournaments. I heard they’re going to have their own TV, but I don’t know when, they don’t know when.”
She added: “WTA, they need to have TV, they need to broadcast us, they need to promote us more if they want to have more sponsors.”
TennisTV’s streaming of the WTA gained only a fraction of the audiences of terrestrial broadcasts, meaning that the shift from Tennis Channel to beIN Sports stateside might prove more consequential in the long term. In the United States, coverage of combined ATP-WTA events like the tournament in Brisbane, Australia, last week and larger tournaments in Madrid, Rome, and Shanghai will now be split, with the men on Tennis Channel and the women on beIN Sports.
While beIN Sports is well established in certain markets, including the Middle East and France, its American presence is fledgling, even compared to another niche outlet like Tennis Channel. SNL Kagan, a media research firm, estimated that beIN Sports reached 23.3 million homes in the United States at the end of last year, which was expected to increase by one million by the end of this year. Tennis Channel reached 50 million homes last year and was expected to grow to 61 million this year.
Tennis Channel is also cheaper. On the nationwide satellite service DirecTV, for example, it is available in packages beginning at $70 per month; beIN Sports is available only in the uppermost tier of packages, which cost $125 a month.
Tennis Channel, in its 14th year, has shown men’s and women’s matches evenly, and will divvy up the broadcast rights to this year’s Grand Slam tournaments with ESPN. Tennis Channel retained its rights to domestic events on both tours, including the combined events at Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami, and the WTA tournament in Charleston, S.C. . But the switch leaves Tennis Channel short of content, and its on-air personalities like Mary Carillo have not shied from sharing their frustration.
Ken Solomon, the chief executive of Tennis Channel, said, “The WTA remains a valued, longtime partner and we’re hopeful that something can be worked out to allow more people than ever the chance to enjoy these additional tournaments.”
BeIN Sports, whose representatives did not return messages for comment, was able to show Williams’s second match of the Auckland tournament, and also had some coverage of that event and this week’s WTA tournaments in Sydney and Hobart, Australia, on its streaming platforms for subscribers. (The Australian Open will be broadcast by ESPN and Tennis Channel in the United States.)
Simon said a bumpy transition was inevitable, and worth the hiccups.
“The whole reason behind this strategy is ultimately driving audience,” Simon said. “We’re in the first step. We just put our toe into the water of this entire project where many people are waist deep already. So I think we’re doing the right things and going in the right direction.”