At The Net

Though it’s hard to believe someone hadn’t thought of this before the last of the analog bandwidth was consumed, the digital cable-friendly Tennis Channel was unveiled Tuesday for a summer 2002 launch. David Meister, formerly involved with HBO Sports, Sundance Channel and the now-defunct Financial News Network, is Chairman/CEO; rock n’ roll tennis coach and impresario Steve Bellamy has been appointed president.

Funded by investors such as former Viacom moguls Frank Biondi, Tom Dooley and Terry Elkes, the Tennis Channel has no carriage commitments thus far, but is banking on a projected digital cable explosion that could very well see the network in 76 million homes by 2005. Although newly launched networks’ difficulties in securing distribution makes this seem like an ambitious forecast at best, the network cites Kagan Worldwide data that estimates digital homes will number 97 million by 2009.

Moreover, Meister stressed a rise in consumer interest in the sport among active players and spectators alike, a development that should help generate interest in the network. “The time is right for a channel that can attract the 66 million adults who have clearly demonstrated their interest by either watching tennis on TV, or playing tennis,” said Meister, adding that tennis is a $3 billion industry and that TV ratings have increased.

Of course, any ratings gains are generated by major tournaments such as the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and as these and other top ten tour events have been split between CBS, NBC, ESPN, USA Networks and TNT, it’s doubtful the Tennis Channel will score a marquee event anytime soon. Meister was vague when asked to comment about landing a premier tourney and said that while the network did acquire the rights to some events, he would not discuss details until the deals were fully fleshed out.

“There is more than enough tennis around and we have enough content to go beyond the next couple of years,” he said, adding that he did not wish to “disrupt” the programming deals at other networks, but wanted to offer audiences that which has not been seen. The Tennis Channel slate will offer a mix of tournament play, travel, instructional programming and personality showcases, he said. Master coaches such as Brad Gilbert, Nick Bollettieri and Vic Braden have aligned themselves with the network as well.

Meister also stressed that the Tennis Channel’s draw of upscale male and female viewers will attract not only the sport’s traditional retailers, but purveyors of packaged goods and luxury items as well. Meister did not go into detail about any commitments.

IMG, the sports business consultancy, signed on as a strategic partner and will provide both financial backing and programming assistance.

Megan Larson, Mediaweek.com