There are surely a whole raft of reasons that tennis no longer enjoys the mainstream U.S. popularity of say, the McEnroe-Connors era, but one big one springs to mind: Where the hell do you even find it?
The Grand Slams are easy enough to catch on various ESPN channels and NBC in the late rounds, but there are only four of those, and tennis is so much more than the majors: It’s a year-round sport, a fat calendar stuffed—probably overstuffed, given injury concerns—with lower stakes but nevertheless interesting tournaments. Almost every single week of the year there are elite players competing hard in some distant locale, and most of that programming is relegated to the highly specialized Tennis Channel, with ESPN only picking up the higher-profile matches. Tennis is not a sport to stumble upon, or watch without a fair amount of concerted effort. Collectively, the Grand Slams occupy just eight weeks of the 52-week calendar. It’s easy for the casual viewer to forget the sport altogether for the other 44.
In that sense the sport may have appeared ripe for “disruption,” and Amazon has recently made some strong inroads there. In early August, the company bought the U.K. rights to stream all men’s tennis events outside the Grand Slams, poaching the contract from regional powerhouse Sky Sports. Today, the men’s tour announced that Amazon had bought worldwide streaming rights for the Next Gen ATP Finals, a smaller, 21-and-under event meant to showcase the future of the men’s game and drum up hype for the post-Roger, post-Rafa lean years to come. Amazon’s contract lasts until the end of 2018, and includes streaming rights to three documentaries tracking various players’ journeys to qualify for the event.
Though the tour has designed similar events in the past, the Next Gen event, based in Milan this year, is the first of its kind in 16 years. And in the spirit of experimentation, it features an idiosyncratic rule set meant to speed play along and keep things fresh: no human line judges, shortened sets, no-ad scoring, abbreviated warmups, shot clock between points, and no lets. Fans will be free to move around the venue during play, breaking from paralyzingly strict rules that govern fan movement at most tournaments. Whether any of this succeeds in attracting tennis fans to Milan feels almost trivial next to the larger question of whether tennis fans worldwide will soon be firing up Amazon Prime Video to get their fix.