By Stuart Kemp
LONDON -- This year's Wimbledon tennis championships will be seen in more countries than ever before when the first serve is dished up Monday.
The multimillion-dollar 13-day event also will be carried by more broadcasters, with even more footage supplied by host broadcaster the BBC, according to the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which organizes the event.
In what is already being billed by the U.K. public service broadcaster as "a massive summer of sport" -- with the European soccer championships having kicked off Saturday in Portugal and the Olympic Games and the British Open golf championship coming later in the summer -- the BBC is upping its Wimbledon ante.
"We're adding to the number of show courts covered by the BBC from seven to eight," a spokeswoman for BBC Sport said. "With everything else that is going on this summer, that's quite a big extra undertaking."
Wimbledon is a "crown jewel" sporting event on British shores, meaning that it is protected by the government here and by law must appear on a terrestrial channel in the United Kingdom so that anyone with a television can watch it.
"It's actually only the finals weekend that is protected," said AELTC director of television John Rowlinson, who oversees rights deals for the club. "Strictly speaking, there is no legal reason why other broadcasters couldn't purchase the first 11 days exclusively, but who would want to do that if you haven't got the finals?"
Last year, footage shot by the BBC, which has been the championship's host broadcaster for more than 50 years, was distributed to 164 territories worldwide, five more than 2002. This year, the number of territories has risen even higher.
The championships were first broadcast by the BBC on the radio in 1927 and switched to television in the late '30s. The broadcaster pays a fee to the AELTC to shoot the event and in exchange gets exclusive U.K. broadcasting rights to the tournament. All the footage the BBC garners over the tournament's length is owned by the AELTC. The tennis club then has rights distributor TransWorld International, sister to International Management Group, broker deals to place the live and recorded footage around the globe with broadcasters via individual or territorywide deals.
"We've seen several new deals put in place (this year)," TWI senior international vp Buzz Hornett said. "In South America, we have nine agreements already in place, up from six for last year's coverage. And even these few weeks before the start of the tournament, not all the deals are finalized and in place yet, so we expect there to be more than ever."
Hornett added that the continued expansion is in part made possible through the growing number of satellite and broadcast outlets in the international marketplace.
Rowlinson also said that there is a growing demand for the Wimbledon "brand" that has grown around the highly identifiable grass courts of the club.
New countries already signed up include Nigeria, Brazil, Chile, Trinidad and Bermuda.
In Australia, broadcast group Channel 9 has the pick of six matches per day, while pay-TV outfit Fox Australia runs all the other footage. But come finals day, Channel 9 has first-run rights.
And in Japan, the championship is divided up into singles matches and doubles matches. NHK Japan takes the license for the solo matches, while Gayora has the rights to the pairs. And a further sublicensing has been sewn up with Sky Perfect in Japan for digital broadcasting rights to everything.
In North America, the deal for coverage is a long-standing one. Two broadcasters step up for the footage, with ESPN taking the bulk of it and NBC securing exclusive rights to the top tennis from the pick of the second week and all matches on the closing weekend.
NBC has been at the tournament for more than 35 years and, according to Rowlinson, is the only broadcaster other than the BBC to have cameras in center court for the climactic weekend. In the late 1960s, the finals appeared once on ABC, but NBC has been the mainstream U.S. broadcaster of choice for the AELTC since then.
NBC has exclusive first-run rights to the last two days, with ESPN carrying blanket coverage in the run-up. On the middle Saturday, NBC goes on-air live with more coverage, sharing the run-up to the finals with ESPN.
"There is no doubt that this is the ultimate sporting event and that it translates brilliantly to the television screen," Hornett said. "My chairman (IMG founder Mark McCormack) spotted its potential while everyone else was saying it was boring watching people bat a ball back and forth. He's been proven right every year since."