- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

Us against Them. No. 1 vs. No. 2. The Grudge Match. The Big One. One for the Ages.

For sure, many of these labels fall into the category of over-the-top hyperbole, but broadcasters of sports learned long ago that a big rivalry can mean big numbers.

That may be no more true than this year, when both Fox and ESPN are boasting huge jumps in ratings for their baseball coverage, thanks to a host of games involving the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets. ESPN and NBC, meanwhile, also are hoping for strong ratings with their coverage of the French Open, based on a potential showdown in the final between men’s tennis’ top two players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Conversely, ratings for the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs are down this season, in part because of a lack of intense rivalry games.

ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasts have seen about a 25 percent spike in ratings this year, buoyed by two games involving the division rival Yankees and Red Sox and another interleague contest between the Yankees and Mets. ESPN’s April 22 game between the Yankees and Red Sox was the most-watched regular-season baseball game on the network in nine years. Ratings figures do not include last night’s game between the Yankees and Red Sox, which aired on ESPN.

“We can get the best teams, and often we get the best teams playing one another,” said Len DeLuca, senior vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. “When you have the big teams, the casual fan is drawn to the big teams, and then we can tell the big stories.”

ESPN’s new broadcast deal with baseball increased the number of times a team can be shown on “Sunday Night Baseball” from three to six. That means more Yankees, more Red Sox and more Mets, plus increased coverage of other rivalry games between the Cardinals and Cubs and Dodgers and Giants.

Fox, too, has leveraged big baseball rivalries to boost ratings for its nationally televised Saturday games. The network began its “game of the week” coverage in April rather than at midseason as in years past and moved the start of games from 1:20 p.m. to 3:55 p.m. The network has televised three Yankees-Red Sox games and a game between the Yankees and Mets.

Regionalized broadcasts of the April 21 Yankees-Red Sox and Cardinals-Cubs games drew 4.7 million viewers, outpacing NBA playoff games between the Suns and Lakers and Heat and Bulls. Overall, ratings for Fox’s baseball coverage have increased nearly 8 percent over last year.

“If there’s a Yankees-Red Sox game on a weekend, we’re doing it,” Fox Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said. “Obviously, rivalries mean additional interest. When we can program games between natural rivals, it certainly makes for more compelling viewing.”

Tennis is one sport that may need the injection of life a rivalry brings. Gone are the days of Evert-Navratilova, McEnroe-Connors and Agassi-Sampras. Only three American women are in the top 50 of the WTA Tour rankings, and just four American men are in the top 50 of the ATP Tour. Third-ranked Andy Roddick and eighth-ranked James Blake added to the American woes by being bounced in the first round of the French Open last week.

But the rivalry of Federer and Nadal is the story line at Roland Garros. Nadal, the world’s No. 2 player, knocked off top-ranked Federer in the French Open final last year. Federer then trounced Nadal in the finals of Wimbledon and also beat Nadal last month in the final of the Hamburg Masters, ending Nadal’s 81-match winning streak on clay. DeLuca called the rivalry “the Yankees-Red Sox of tennis.”

“We’re the only guys who have been winning grand slams the last couple of years, so obviously there’s much talk about our rivalry right now,” Federer told Reuters last week in Paris.

The need for big ratings for this year’s French Open is heightened by the launch of the Tennis Channel, which makes its debut on satellite television with coverage of the tournament this week.

History shows that big rivalry matches can lead to higher ratings for tennis. The 2002 U.S. Open final between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who had met in Grand Slam finals four previous times, scored some of the best ratings of any Grand Slam final and have yet to be topped since. That year, ratings for the final rose 44 percent over 2001, when Sampras lost to Australian Lleyton Hewitt.

“I would like everyone to be at center court for those types of matches,” said ESPN tennis analyst and former pro Patrick McEnroe, whose brother, John, was involved in some of history’s most intense tennis rivalries. “You can compare it to an Ali-Frazier heavyweight fight. Clearly, that brings casual fans to the sport. To get it to that next level and move the ratings, you need that rivalry.”

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