ESPN’s Live Wimbledon Promise Centers On TV; Mobile Held Hostage

Novak Dkojovic and Petra Kvitova weren’t the only winners at Wimbledon this year. Fans who thinking watching sports live matters won big when the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club went with ESPN (NYSE: DIS) as the exclusive rights holder and its massive live schedule for the next 12 years. But mobile viewers may have more in common with Andy Murray or even Andy Roddick, at least for the next few years, as ESPN leverages the new rights in its own distribution negotiations.

Meanwhile, broadband-reliant viewers will get a boost next year with semis and finals being streamed live; ESPN3 will expand to 750 hours across the tournament. And if you don’t subscribe to ESPN? No live Wimbledon at all from 2012. ABC will be the all-tape network. For the past nine years, ESPN was the primary cable partner; NBC (NSDQ: CMCSA) Sports owned broadcast for 43 years, routinely tape delaying matches in some time zones to protect revenues for the later hours of The Today Show.

Watch ESPN — if you can: ESPN will rely on its authenticated Watch ESPN apps for mobile access, limiting live matches to streaming linear ESPN and ESPN2, ESPN’s content head John Skipper said in a conference call after the deal was announced Tuesday. On the plus side, that means Watch ESPN doubles as Watch Wimbledon. Not so plus: as of this writing, only two cable operators (Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Bright House) and one telecom (Verizon FiOS) offer Watch ESPN. Access is via apps on iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone and Android; no mobile browser version.

It’s not clear how much of the 750 hours promised tor broadband network ESPN3 annually will be live streamed or offered only through VOD. Initially, Skipper said the semifinals and finals next year wouldn’t be on ESPN3; ESPN PR clarified that later, saying that those matches will be on ESPN3 in 2012 and that ESPN “will be making future programming announcements closer to the event.”

Why does that matter?: ESPN has far great distribution for ESPN3 than Watch ESPN. I can watch ESPN3 at my home and on the go as a subscriber of Charter Communications (NSDQ: CHTR) — and so can anyone with a provider on this list. Access is covered as part of distribution agreements, with ESPN getting a fee per sub for the broadband network just like it does with its cable networks. It’s free to use from a college campus network or military base in the U.S.

Watch ESPN is a bargaining tool and Wimbledon is added leverage as ESPN negotiates renewals. *Time Warner* Cable got the rights for itself and Bright House as part of an omnibus content deal that included retransmission rights, access to ESPN3, expanded ABC VOD and more. Comcast’s last deal added ESPN3 but so far the largest U.S. carrier — and one of the biggest proponents of TV Everywhere/authenticated TV — lacks Watch ESPN as an option.

Getting subscribers to complain about lacking access is a tried and true method of gaining carriage. It doesn’t always work but it often does, which is one reason why gaining marquee events like Wimbledon can be so important. NBCUniversal will use the Olympics to do the same for Versus. High-profile events also help ESPN, among the most expensive channels, and others justify rates and rate increases. And, especially in today’s Netflix-Hulu environment, they provide added incentive for subscribers to stay with a service.

As currently set up, it runs counter to the All England club’s ultimate goal of getting the utmost attention for Wimbledon by building the biggest live audience possible. It’s a bit like closing the Centre Court roof on a brilliant day.

This is particularly true if ESPN returns to the idea of retaining live coverage of the men’s and women’s semis and finals for TV after 2012, using ESPN3 for VOD — the online version of tape delay — and removing portability while limiting mobile access.

That shouldn’t be the case for the life of the deal, which ESPN sold as the way to get Wimbledon the most live action possible. When I asked All England Chief Executive Ian Ritchie on the call if he was ok with having a smaller audience at first while ESPN held some matches off live broadband and limited access to mobile, he spoke pragmatically of how long it takes to adapt some technologies and said ESPN is the partner most capable of providing growth in digital and mobile.

None of this is meant to minimize the feat of making Wimbledon a live event in the U.S. But for those who saw ESPN as potential Olympic nirvana compared to victor NBC Universal, it’s a reminder that multiplatform doesn’t equal simulcast. (Release)