It never rains but it pours for poor old Auntie. Just a month after the Royal & Ancient Golf Club warned the BBC that its dwindling interest in golf could threaten its hold on future television coverage of The Open, ITV will rip another plank from the corporation's platform as a holder of major sports rights with more than 150 hours of coverage of the French Open tennis tournament.
Although the BBC's commitment to the year's second Grand Slam event sometimes appeared half-hearted, with much of the coverage available only via the red button, the loss is significant in that it demonstrates ITV's determination to challenge for a broad range of sports rights.
The French Open, which starts on 27 May, will mark ITV's debut at a Grand Slam tennis tournament. The desire to make a major impact was emphasised at yesterday's launch of its coverage. John Inverdale will be the anchor man for the on-screen ITV team, which will also feature Jim Courier, who won the French Open twice and is now the United States Davis Cup captain, Mark Petchey, Sam Smith, Fabrice Santoro, Nick Mullins and Celina Hinchcliffe. The team will operate from a specially constructed studio at Roland Garros.
While football remains at the heart of ITV's sporting empire – its portfolio includes the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, England internationals, European Championship and World Cup – it has also bought the rights to a number of other major events. ITV has the 2015 Rugby World Cup, IPL cricket and cycling's Tour de France and Tour of Spain.
Niall Sloane, ITV's director of sport, said the three-year deal for the French Open brought "another important dimension to our sports portfolio". He added: "When we looked at it initially, the drive was to get more really credible sport on to ITV1 and indeed on to ITV4. We had done the Tour de France, which worked well in that respect."
The French Open will be shown on ITV1 at the weekend, with ITV4 taking over in midweek. "I think it's good news for tennis fans," Sloane said. "We have a fantastic amount of tennis coverage – more than 150 hours of live TV, which is a lot more than has ever been shown on free-to-air television before."
Sloane thought viewing figures for the tournament might approach what ITV would expect from coverage of Europa League football next season. "When we have Newcastle or Spurs or whoever, we would expect really significant audiences of, I would say, three or three and a half million on ITV4. I think it would probably need Andy Murray to be really flying in the second week to reach those kind of audiences on ITV4."
Although the BBC has just extended its deal with Wimbledon until 2017, ITV might see the French Open as the start of a major push into tennis. "I think we'll look at that at the end of the summer when we've seen how well the French Open did," Sloane said. "I'm confident it will do extremely well."
Bleeding Beeb: Sport the BBC has lost
Cricket England Test Matches – lost rights to Channel 4 in 1999.
World Rally Championship Lost rights to Channel 4 in 2001.
Boat Race Lost rights in 2004, regained in 2010.
Football FA Cup and England home internationals – lost in 2008 to ITV.
Rugby union Anglo-Welsh Cup – lost rights in 2009 to Sky.
Cricket The Ashes – lost rights to show highlights of 2010-11 series.
Athletics Lost the 2011 and 2013 World Championships to Channel 4 (BBC has rights for 2015 and 2017).
Formula One Reduced from this season to just 10 races, Sky will show full calendar.
Golf Masters – last year lost rights to all four days to Sky, but still hold rights to the final two days.
Tennis French Open – to be broadcast on ITV from this year.
Horse Racing Grand National – will be shown on Channel 4 from next year.