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Disney is quietly giving players at this week’s US Open direct access to tournament coverage via its ESPN channel amid a heated dispute with pay-television provider Charter Communications that has blacked out programming for millions of subscribers.
Nearly 15mn US pay-TV customers have been unable to view Disney networks, including ESPN, since Thursday amid a battle with Charter over fees to carry the programming. The spat has pitted Charter, a traditional cable carrier fighting to hold on to subscribers amid years of cord-cutting, against media titan Disney, which in recent years has joined the push for direct-to-consumer streaming, and whose ESPN channel remains a cornerstone of US sports programming.
Left in the middle have been some of the best tennis players in the world, who cannot view opponents’ matches while in New York.
“I don’t know if it’s legal or illegal, but I have to find a way because I cannot watch [the matches] on TV,” Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 US Open champion, said at a press conference late on Monday after advancing to the quarterfinals. “I got internet — how do you call it? — pirate websites, I watch tennis there. I have no other choice.”
A spokesperson for ESPN told the Financial Times on Tuesday that the network has started providing secure logins to The Walt Disney Company app to some US Open players who have requested access, including Medvedev.
The company has also provided logins to some members of the media in the US covering the tournament. Disney had to get a login for ESPN tennis analyst John McEnroe, who tested positive for Covid-19 last week and was forced to miss some early-round matches in person.
“He couldn’t watch and he was going nuts,” the spokesperson said.
While carriage disputes between media and cable companies are common, the timing for the current fight comes amid one of the busiest weeks in the US for live sport, a cornerstone of cable programming.
Aside from the US Open, the most important domestic tennis fixture of the year, this week also marks the return of college football and the beginning of the National Football League season on Thursday. Disney and ESPN hold the rights to Monday Night Football, consistently one of the top-rated weekly broadcasts of the year.
Charter declined to comment on Tuesday. It previously blamed the ongoing dispute on the loss of cable subscribers coupled with the shift by media companies to move programming to direct-to-consumer platforms.
“We have reached a precipice and must chart a path to change,” the company said in a statement.
On Monday, Disney said it was “hopeful Charter is ready to have more conversations that will restore access to its content to Spectrum customers as quickly as possible”. Disney urged affected subscribers to consider signing up for Hulu, the streaming service in which it has a majority stake, along with Comcast.
The United States Tennis Association, which administers the US Open, declined to comment. Last week it said it was “disappointed” for fans and viewers who have lost access to ESPN and hoped Disney and Charter could reach an agreement “as quickly as possible”.