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Amazon bought the rights to some of the French Open’s biggest time slots. The sport’s top players are desperate to avoid them

May 30, 2022, 12:13 PM UTC

Tennis megastar Rafael Nadal is better known for slamming 100-mile-an-hour aces into the orange clay courts at the French Open, rather than bristling with frustration over a U.S. ecommerce giant. Having clinched 21 Grand Slam titles, he’s vying for his 14th French Open win this week, at Paris’s famous Roland Garros stadium.

But the tournament’s usually festive, early-summer atmosphere is now tinged with controversy over one company: Amazon.

The rising anger is rooted in a 2020 deal that Amazon Prime Video inked with the French Tennis Federation, giving it exclusive rights to air 10 nighttime matches at the French Open—a new feature of the tournament, thanks to a mammoth $400-million upgrade, with a retractable roof and state-of-the-art lighting on center court.

Yet no amount of money could offer balmy nights in Paris, where evenings are chilly and often wet. And for the sport’s big stars, Amazon’s nighttime deal has morphed into a bitter argument over scheduling.

As if to cool tempers, the week’s hotly anticipated match—Nadal against top-seeded player Novak Djokovic—is scheduled for Tuesday night, rather than during the daytime, as most players prefer. But in its first such concession, Amazon agreed to drop its exclusivity for the night, allowing anyone in France to watch it.

Blankets and slow balls

Nadal, 35, had made it clear he does not want another nighttime match.

“The humidity is higher, the ball is slower, and there can be very heavy conditions especially when it’s cold,” he said on May 25, after beating France’s Corentin Moutet in three straight sets—at night—in his 300th Grand Slam-winning match.

That weather problem was on stark display on Sunday night, when 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz smashed the Russian player Karen Khacharov, 26, in straight sets. During breaks in the play, both men wrapped Roland Garros towels around them to ward off the cold, which dropped to single-digit Celcius as it neared midnight. In the stands—far from full—some spectators unfolded blankets as they shivered through the match.

Alcaraz has ignited frenzied excitement as the new global superstar—echoing his fellow Spaniard, Nadal, who won his first French Open at age 19. But like his countryman, Alcaraz wants nothing to do with Amazon’s nighttime games.

After his win Sunday, he said it would be “unfair” if Nadal books a daytime slot, and likely leaves him playing at night. “When we finish at midnight, with all that comes with it—dinner, physio, trying to come down in terms of adrenaline—it’s harder to recover,” he said.

Amazon’s deep pockets

But at the root of controversy is money—specifically, the very deep pockets of Amazon.

Among many French people, the company already has a reputation for cut-throat business practices.

In early 2020, French workers at the country’s Amazon fulfillment centers went on strike, for lack of COVID-19 pandemic protections, and the French government blocked Amazon from applying for government COVID-19 relief funds. There have been repeated protests  against Amazon’s expansion plans, including new warehouses, with demonstrators linking the company’s rising success in France with President Emmanuel Macron’s business-friendly policies.

Until its contract with the company, the French tennis federation earned €25 million a year from its broadcast rights with France Televisions and Eurosport—less than half the €70 million broadcasters pay to London’s Wimbledon and New York’s U.S. Open tournaments.

The tennis organization has not revealed how much Amazon paid for its exclusive Roland Garros nighttime broadcasts.

But as a measure of the huge possible amounts, Amazon signed a similar broadcast-rights deal last year, to air most of France’s Ligue 1 football (soccer) matches, for about €275 million ($296 million) a year—slapping Amazon Prime members with an additional €4.99 monthly charge to view the games.

Despite those giant amounts, for Amazon, live broadcasting has an equally big advantage: converting sports fans into Amazon shoppers, according to Alex Green, Amazon Prime Video’s managing director for sports in Europe, who told a sports convention in London in March that the live sportscasting “makes people feel really good about their subscriptions.”

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