NBC Needs To Get A Grip — Or Lose Its Grip On Wimbledon

Roof Garden at Wimbledon Broadcast Centre

I’m sitting outside on a lovely Friday morning, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the news. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s the final Friday of Wimbledon and I’m reduced to either watching a pirated feed from a place where the broadcasters value live sports or following the Andy Roddick-Andy Murray match vicariously through Twitters and live blogs. That’s because NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) values the Today Show more than live sports and, or at least, more than this live sport and its fans, and NBC Sports has the right to “save” a match for its exclusive window.

This isn’t like the Olympics, where NBC has — and as Jeff Zucker stressed to me recently, will continue — to time shift key events to prime evening hours to maintain traffic and ad dollars for an incredibly expensive event. This is a marquee event that NBC will show in time-shifted waves across the U.S. during the day because it can, not for the sake of preserving its audience. (Richard Sandomir did a great job of explaining this.) ESPN (NYSE: DIS) is more than willing to show the match live but can’t either on air or ESPN360.com because of the Byzantine broadcast contracts. NBC will show its broadband stream when it airs the tape-delayed match. It’s all a slap in the face to fans — and to its own crew working hard to produce great tennis coverage.

It’s as though NBC is double-dog-daring people to skip TV. Just a sampling of the tweets here suggests some irked fans will do just that. They’ll be back for the finals this weekend, which are supposed to really be live but that sour taste won’t disappear.

I’m especially frustrated because I experienced Wimbledon in person this year for a few hours. I was at Centre Court when the roof was closed for the first time but I spent much of my time at the Broadcast Centre (on a pass arranged by ESPN) so I could get a better sense of the broadband operations across the networks. I’ll have more on that but for now I need to go back to Twitter or Radio Wimbledon or the like in search of the latest update on the battle of the Andys.

Update: Just to show how absurd this all is, at 1:39 ET, we’re in the third set on broadband as NBC simulcasts its main broadcast feed, but in central time, where I am now, the broadcast is still in the first set — and out west, it’s not close to starting. Meanwhile, at Wimbledon it’s a fourth set tie-break with Roddick ahead two sets to one. No, actually, thanks to everyone but NBC, we now know that’s a winner for Andy Roddick as Murray’s hopes of playing in front of the Queen Sunday are dashed.

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