net.wars: The unbearable fan-friendliness that is tennis

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 22 June 2003

"I figured out who you must be," the photographer told me.

Wendy M Grossman

I was startled: this was the press room at the Eastbourne tennis tournament, the women's warm-up for Wimbledon which, in case you live outside the UK or in a cave, starts Monday. It turned out he recognized me from rec.sport.tennis, where I've been a regular poster since November 1992.

Hmm. Would I instinctively recognize the Australian poster to r.s.t. who calls anyone who doesn't agree with him a "dickhead"? Though I'm more confident about the "Italian-American guy" who fails the Turing test by incessantly reiterating his passionate and extremely dull advocacy for replacing all court surfaces with grass and making everyone play with wooden racquets. It's just so obvious he's a ball machine that's been souped up with a microchip and an Internet connection.

Yes, it's time for Britain's temporary annual obsession with tennis, the only time of year when this area of my personal interests is socially acceptable.

On the technical front, things haven't progressed much since last year. IBM is boasting about how easy they're making it for media on-site by adding wireless connections. It makes for a nice press release and cutting out the cable installation will doubtless ease things hugely for the manic IBM team that has to install a giant network in the week before the Championships, but Wi-Fi isn't going to help the commentators much. An Eastbourne press sampling showed that a) it will make absolutely no difference to the TV people, and b) you can count the number of Wi-Fi equipped print tennis journalists on the toes of one foot without removing your shoe.

Back at the home ranch I'm looking forward to my first year with digital access. Originally, I'd thought I'd be switching to digital cable, but then Hauppauge sent me this nice digital Freeview box, on which I gather I will be able to get the multiple BBC channels that I have unaccountably let pass me by the last couple of years. With, of course, an old computer pressed into service as a digital video recorder.

The core problem is that the tennis world thinks of the media as its customers rather than the fans: it has not yet learned to disintermediate. True, a surprising number of tournaments offer live scoring on the Web, and two even offer streaming video. But many of these sites are still wholly awful (the Eastbourne site being a case in point): difficult to navigate, slow to load, and bereft of even links to the most obvious statistical information fans would like to have. The official WTA Tour and ATP Tour Web sites have got better, but still are cluttered, annoying, and too much like corporate brochures; plus, they erase more of their history every year. The WTA Tour site thinks it's TV, playing you a car ad before you can read the news. Do these people have no idea about the Web or about fans? (Apparently not: the ATP Tour is said to have objected to the usage of its name for the independent ATPWorld site and it had to close. Its sister, WTAWorld is still going, though. Yet another fine, fan-friendly marketing ploy from the ATP, like the mess they made of the men's rankings.)

To be fair, one problem is that most people still have slow connections. BT Wholesale, recognizing that maybe this wasn't entirely our fault, announced this week that the company, now serious about selling broadband, is going to help the folks desperately trying to sign up enough local fellow subscribers to get the exchanges converted. How? By giving them a Web site where they can order posters, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia to "give it the look and feel of a real grass-roots campaign!" as the press release put it.

You certainly can't do streaming video via dial-up – and you can't do it well with current broadband either – but you can do radio, and I've wondered for a long time why someone didn't. The only live radio coverage (that I'm aware of) of the US Open is that done by the BBC. There's a real opportunity for someone – and that someone may finally have arrived in the form of RadioTennis, which is going to be broadcasting from a load of small events in the US, plus the Davis Cup. Meantime, those of us who managed to claw broadband from the reluctant supplier that BT was in 1999, are wishing the US's newly launched Tennis Channel would send itself out over the Internet as well as via satellite.

Blame the current system of geographically based rights and broadcasting, which simply are bad business models for niche markets. And let's face it, despite the tennis mania that is about to overwhelm us until July 6, tennis is marginal in both the UK and the US.

Oh, well. In the meantime, I really should get back to the prototype Tennis Hall of Shame I've had in mind for a long time, and yes I know it currently looks awful. Submissions, anyone?

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).