StartupCloseup: Tennis Channel, Anyone?

  • by June 21, 2002
New channel looks for love in the cable universe. If marquee names were all it took to fill the seats — or acquire enough distribution — The Tennis Channel should be ready to serve it up to cable subscribers in the fourth quarter. Its investors include Pete Sampras, former HBO chief Frank Biondi, and IMG, which manages the careers of major tennis stars including Venus and Serena Williams. The chairman and CEO is David Meister, who has a long history in cable, having held top posts at HBO, FNN, and the Sundance Channel.

Although he realizes that comparisons between the Golf Channel and his new venture are inevitable, Meister is careful to emphasize the differences. For one, the channel is expected to skew younger, being primarily composed of high-earning 18-to-49-year-olds, and be popular with women. Plus, the channel believes that there are also opportunities to go after even younger viewers, given the game’s many young player/personalities.

Thus, the 24/7 programming will center around the different demographics that the channel hopes to attract during different day parts, with personality-driven programming targeted toward the youth audience planned for the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. block. As far as airing tournaments, the network plans to broadcast the Hall of Fame championships, the International Championships, and the Women’s Tennis Association’s Acura Classic, in addition to a full slate of the Champions Tour for senior men. Asked if he saw it as a problem that the Grand Slam events still go to bigger cable nets or the broadcast networks, Meister said he felt the market was underserved. "The top players play week in, week out," he observed.

But Meister is a realist, too. In an expanded cable universe, The Tennis Channel will have plenty of work in front of it just to get its small slice of the pie. The channel has made several moves in recent months that show what a close eye it will keep on costs. For one, the company is outsourcing ad sales, using the services of Los Angeles–based Sports Marketing Partners, which handles ad sales for more than a dozen teams in the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball.

Also, the Tennis Channel has struck a distribution alliance to get it signed up with those all-important MSOs (multiple system operators). "We’re looking to … build this on a cost-effective basis," Meister says.

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