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Weird Wimbledon threatens to upset ratings and ads

Serena Williams in action during her Ladies' Singles fourth round match against Sabine Lisicki of Germany on day seven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships on July 1, 2013 in London, England.

Serena Williams, gone. Roger Federer, out. Rafael Nadal, didn’t make it.   

With such big names out early, you can expect Wimbledon television ratings to take a hit, says Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College.

“When you have a sport like tennis which is an individual sport, the individual star is enormously imporant in terms of generating a following,” he says. 

It’s called the Tiger Woods effect. When he doesn’t play a golf tournament, ratings go down. It can be true with team sports with particularly high-profile stars -- if Lebron James isn’t playing a game for Miami Heat, for example -- but Zimbalist says the effect is much stronger on individual sports.

That can cost broadcasters money, says Michael Wiles of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State. The advertising is long since paid for by the time the tournament rolls around, but “if for some reasons a favorite doesn’t make the final and ratings are quite low, then the network has to provide make-good advertisements for the advertisers.”

In other words, the network has to keep airing ads for free until they reach the gauranteed number of viewers.   

Wiles says ESPN has a huge number of eyeballs at its disposal, so it will be able to fulfill its obligations even if ratings do slump a little. But there’s a chance it might not have to try too hard -- because this tournament is just so weird. 

“In a tournament like this there can still be a lot of excitement,” says Jack Plunkett, CEO of Plunkett Research. 

After all, don’t you want watch the player who beat Serena Williams?

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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