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'Not about money'
HBO declines to renew Wimbledon contract after 25 years
Posted: Monday June 28, 1999 04:53 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- The strawberries and cream have been great, but 25 years at Wimbledon was enough for HBO.
The cable network will not renew its contract with the grass-court classic after a quarter-century of coverage, and there will be no shortage of bidders to pick up tennis' most prestigious tournament.
Time Warner sports president Seth Abraham said HBO's decision had nothing to do with ratings or money. The network paid $50,000 a year when it started with Wimbledon in 1975, while the current five-year deal averaged about $8 million a year. Ratings have been steady if unspectacular.
"As I look ahead, I felt the need to refresh our schedule," Abraham said Monday from his London hotel room. "If we had tried to renew Wimbledon, then we wouldn't have been able to try other new things."
Abraham would not elaborate on his plans to acquire replacement programming, but did say that it would not involve another tennis tournament.
"Wimbledon is still the elite tennis tournament in the world and one of the top 10 sporting events," he added.
Although ratings had fallen to a 1.6 in 1997, HBO posted a 1.9 last year after making a decision to devote more of its coverage to women players.
Abraham said he expects this year's ratings to be about the same, even with Andre Agassi's success.
But ratings aren't as important for HBO as with other networks because HBO does not have advertising -- and advertising is driven by ratings.
Abraham said he made the decision not to renew about two weeks before the tournament began and flew to England to tell club chairman John Curry and chief executive officer Christopher Gorringe that HBO would be going in a different direction.
"It's not about money and it never even got to that stage," Abraham said. "Time Warner doesn't scare easily money-wise. That wasn't really a concern."
The bidding to replace HBO should be extremely competitive. Rupert Murdoch and Fox outbid HBO by about $35 million five years ago, but the All England Club decided to stick with HBO instead of the larger check.
"We've made our interest known to the appropriate people," said Fox spokesman Vince Wladika, adding that interest would be purely for cable telecasts.
Disney's ESPN and ABC are also interested, as is Turner and USA Network, which televises the early rounds of the U.S. Open and French Open.
CBS, which broadcasts the U.S. Open, declined to comment if they were interested in Wimbledon.
NBC's contract also expires at the end of this year's tournament, but the network will likely seek a new deal.
"HBO's been a wonderful partner for both NBC and the All England Club for 25 years," said NBC spokesman Ed Markey. "We look forward to developing the same kind of relationship with HBO's successor."
HBO was responsible for airing weekday tennis on network television for the first time in the United States. When it began in 1975, it had 125,000 subscribers. That number has increased to 25 million.
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