Television is finally starting to come to grips with the tennis racket. A game that seems virtually invented for the medium—confined space, small cast of characters, no need for mammoth film crews—tennis has proliferated like one of Al Capp's schmoos. In 1971 2% of the air time allocated to all sports by the major networks was devoted to tennis; this year the figure is 13%. The number of tennis events on TV has increased from seven five years ago to some 70 this year and, including the Public Broadcasting Service, the number of hours from around 30 to 225. But last weekend the tennis monster showed signs that it could devour Frankenstein. On Saturday afternoon NBC showed—on tape—Chris Evert out-gaming Evonne Goolagong on Centre Court at Wimbledon in a match that had actually taken place some 25 hours earlier. On Sunday afternoon the very same two were at it again, this time on ABC, in a match that had been played seven months earlier at Hilton Head Island, S.C. Evert won that one, too.
Because of this sort of electronic jiggery-pokery, tennis television ratings, with rare exceptions, have been tumbling, and the networks are planning to reduce the number of matches and broadcasting hours next year, perhaps by as much as 50%. Hallelujah! Tennis viewers are so inundated that some have become convinced that what they are really seeing is a couple of dozen players who are being kept prisoners by the networks in a large building somewhere in New Mexico and forced to play each other continuously as the cameras whir. Every so often they are required to change into different-colored shirts. According to the announcers the matches are coming to us from Spain or Hilton Head or Amelia Island, but we really know better. The shows, like the games themselves, look exactly alike. Not much ever happens in or around that building in New Mexico to persuade me that tennis on NBC is all that different from tennis on CBS, or that CBS covers the game better than ABC.
Oh, once in a while some guy named Ilie livens things up for a while by stomping out of the building and all the others get mad at him. Or a hairdresser sneaks in and gives Billie Jean the frizzies. And the balls are now yellow instead of white. But the monotony and the overexposure tend to make even a fine young performer like Bjorn Borg just another bore.
Oversaturation is nothing new in television. If one doctor show is successful, try a dozen; if Upstairs, Downstairs works in London, why not the same sort of thing in Boston? Tennis, of course, is cheap to produce, and there is a genuine tennis-playing boom in the U.S. But the thing to keep in mind about TV tennis in the '70s is what happened to TV boxing at the end of the '50s. Television built boxing, milked it, then flipped it out into the cold. All of a sudden, no more boxing on TV. TV helped build tennis and is now milking it. When will the flip come?
Carl Lindemann Jr., the head of NBC sports, speaking at an affiliates convention in Los Angeles last week, said, "It becomes obvious that the earlier glowing predictions for tennis as a television attraction are not being realized.... We will be cutting back substantially in 1977.... Tennis expanded too rapidly on all three networks to the confusion of the viewer whether he be a tennis fan or not.... You can switch channels at a given time and see Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver or Bjorn Borg playing on different channels simultaneously."
The one thing you can't see on different channels simultaneously is Lindemann's top tennis announcer, the peerless Bud Collins (SI, April 5). Collins recently charged in a piece written for World Tennis that the proliferation of tennis, television and money often results in the spectator being ripped off by tired players who simply want to get their matches over with.
"The days of tennis by the ton are over," says Clarence Cross, Director of Sports for CBS. "We love tennis and make money with it, but the number of tournaments and the overlapping of them confuses viewers. We are dropping the Virginia Slims Tour next season even though the ratings went up this year. In the first quarter of next year we are going to emphasize the NBA more because of the recent merger with the ABA. The demographics for tennis are excellent, and our sales department was sorry to see the Slims tour go, but if you have to balance things on a scale, pro basketball wins."
Lindemann and Cross agree that big tournaments like Wimbledon and Forest Hills will have greater appeal to fans and sponsors once a lot of the phony tennis is dropped. And the "heavyweight" matches from Las Vegas will now have to be meaningful to get on the air. CBS put on three of them over the last two years and the ratings clearly showed ennui setting in: Jimmy Connors vs. Rod Laver (17 million viewers); Connors vs. John Newcombe (16.5 million); Connors vs. Manuel Orantes (8.8 million).
But all is not downhill for the game, airwaves-wise. The Golden Gaters of World Team Tennis have found enough sponsors to broadcast 25 of their matches on radio in the San Francisco area on stations KRE-AM and KPEN-FM. (When one listens to a tennis match on radio, do the ears tend to go from side to side?) Tennis itself, of course, will learn something once television starts bailing out: that the time has come for the game to get itself organized.