ESPN abruptly halted its broadcast of Rafael Nadal's trophy presentation at the U.S. Open on Monday night to begin pregame coverage of its late "Monday Night Football" game between the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. Enraged tennis fans took to Twitter to bash the network for the move.
At 10:14 p.m. ET, presentation emcee Bill Macatee cut-off Rafa's interview mid-sentence. The first-time Open champion was then hastily given the winner's check and trophy before the network quickly cut to Kansas City the instant Rafa hoisted the trophy in the air. There was no warning given to viewers and no alternate channel on which to watch the rest of the presentation.
The men's final had been moved from CBS to ESPN2 after a two-hour rain delay because the broadcast network didn't want the Open interfering with its primetime schedule. ESPN2 began coverage at 8 p.m. but had a conflict at 10:15 p.m. when its second "Monday Night Football" game was to begin airing. Because there was another Monday Night game still airing on ESPN (the first week of the NFL season has a MNF doubleheader), there was nowhere to put tennis. The decision had been made that if the match was still ongoing while both football games were on, the tennis would be switched to ESPN Classic.
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Rafa made that moot when he dispatched Djokovic in the fourth set. That partially let ESPN off the hook, as the decision to move to ESPN Classic would have generated a huge uproar since that network isn't available in high-definition. For fans used to watching all Open coverage in sparkling HD, having to watch the fifth set of a classic Open match in standard-def would have sparked a virtual riot.
But the trophy cut-off was bad enough. There were any number of viable options the network had in those final minutes, and forcing the greatest tennis player alive to stop his speech just so Trent Dilfer could speak platitudes about how the Chiefs defense needed to make plays was unacceptable. Alert viewers that the coverage would switch to ESPN Classic or ESPN News or The Tennis Channel or Spike TV or even ESPN3.com. Tell viewers they could watch the presentation later on ESPN.com. Do something.
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Look, I don't blame ESPN for choosing football over tennis. The highest-rated tennis matches of the past decade have drawn a fraction of the viewers that the lowest-rated "Monday Night Football" games bring in. Football is king, but that's no reason to insult tennis fans and treat the end of the U.S. Open like it's some bowling tournament. After watching over 100 hours of coverage on ESPN over the past two weeks, that was the thanks tennis die-hards received?
It was a slap in the face to everyone involved with the U.S. Open and a black mark on an otherwise-stellar fortnight for ESPN. The conflict with football was unexpected and unfortunate, but that doesn't bail out ESPN for its decision.
You can watch the entirety of Nadal's trophy presentation here.