By Barry Janoff
September 5, 2012: Ken Solomon, chairman and CEO for the Tennis Channel, is the first to admit that back in 2003, the idea of a cable network devoted 24/7 to the sport did not find much love. But nearly ten years later, consider it advantage, Tennis Channel, for building a home that airs tournaments which previously had been unavailable to a national audience and for creating a multi-media platform with the ability to showcase the players, businesses and lifestyle that comprise the tennis universe.
Tennis Channel, based in Santa Monica, Calif., was launched in May 2003 and is currently making plans to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Ownership includes several private equity firms, sports marketing firm IMG and minority investors including tennis icons Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
Among others, Tennis Channel has telecast rights to the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, Roland Garros (French Open), Australian Open, the Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series, ATP Masters Series, WTA Tour championship competitions, Davis Cup and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas and the Hyundai Hopman Cup.
Tennis Channel said it is currently available in 34 million homes nationwide via nine of the top 10 multi-system operators (MSOs) and Verizon FiOS TV, and has a national footprint via DirecTV and DISH Network. Tennis Channel also will be part of the programming on ClearVision, an airport TV network from Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings scheduled to debut this fall.
In July, following a three-year dispute, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Comcast Corp. had knowingly limited Tennis Channel's availability in the Comcast system by relegating it to a payment tier that reached just three million of Comcast's 22 million-plus households. The FCC said that Comcast had to add the Tennis Channel to an additional 18 million households that subscribe to Comcast cable service (as well as pay Tennis Channel more each year for its programming). Comcast appealed the decision and, on Aug. 25, was granted a stay by the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which is still in effect.
But that situation did not deter Tennis Channel from blanketing the final Major of the year with wall-to-wall coverage. By the end of the 2012 U.S. Open on Sept. 9, Tennis Channel will have aired nearly 245 hours of coverage during the two-week event, with more than 70 hours of live coverage and some 30 original hours of such shows as U.S. Open Tonight and Breakfast at the Open.
Tennis Channel's on-air team includes Jim Courier, Bill Macatee, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport.
Solomon has more than 20 years of experience in cable, new media, TV production, distribution and advertising through executive positions at Universal Television, DreamWorks, News Corp. and Scripps. He spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the growth of the sport, tennis marketing and the outlook for Tennis Channel as it nears its 10th anniversary.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What is your opinion about the game of tennis in 2012?
Ken Solomon: The game has evolved. Simultaneously, awareness of the game has evolved regarding the way it's staged. Without patting ourselves on the back too much, the way we are able to bring the game to people has made it more accessible. So what we are living through now is a player, fan and business renaissance of tennis. And that's not just me saying it. The Wall Street Journal called it the top sport in the world. USA Today has said it. It's obviously reaching a new zenith.
NYSJ: There are four men at the top who currently have separated themselves from the rest of the pack: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray (ranked as of July 2012). But the top-ranked players among the women have been in flux. How have both situations impacted the sport?
KS: I love the four guys at the top of the men's game, three of whom — Federer, Djokovic and Nadal — have won every Grand Slam since (the French Open in) 2005 except for the 2009 U.S. Open (won by Juan Martin del Potro). We had Andy Murray winning the gold medal at the Olympics in London. But there are other men who are working hard to get to the top and that makes for great storylines. At the same time, on the women's side, I love the fact that we have had seven different women winning the last seven Grand Slam titles (prior to the U.S. Open). You have Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki, others, all with great stories to tell. The personalities are amazing. And people are now appreciating the level of athleticism that it takes to remain at the top. There is a lot of great stuff going on.
"It's not about commercials. It's how do we work with brands that are authentic to the sport, that speak to the growth of the sport and what the sport is about."
NYSJ: How would you describe the state of marketing at Tennis Channel, and how does that reflect on the state of business in the sport itself?
KS: More doors are opening and partners want to be more creative. Our strategy is to be integrated. It is rare that you are able to start from whole cloth a new media platform that has on it something as powerful as the entire sport of tennis. We start in January with the road to the Australian Open and end in December with the year-end finals. So we have everything. The Davis Cup. The WTA. The ATP. All four Grand Slams. Every top-rated tournament. Last year, the top-rated men and women played live 629 times on Tennis Channel. And that's before you get to the encore performances. So when we start discussions about marketing partnerships, that's what it is about.
NYSJ: Historically, commercials were the foundation around which marketing campaigns were built. But how is Tennis Channel using its access to multi-media platforms to drive marketing and partnership deals?
KS: It's not about commercials. Those are the last things. It's how do we work with brands that are authentic to the sport, that speak to the growth of the sport and what the sport is about. How do we integrate them fully into live coverage, into original content, into short-form and specials, into on-site and social media. And how do we do it organically so that it becomes a benefit and resource for the fan, instead of an intrusion. And that's where you get the magic. Whether it's IBM, because they 'power' the Grand Slams and we do four different specials about how that works. Or LaCoste, where we do short-form pieces that wrap into the production of French Open Tonight, which is sponsored by LaCoste, where we interview the best players. And it works for them because they are a sponsor of the French Open and a year-round sponsor of the sport. There is no end to that.
NYSJ: How important is it that players such as Federer, Sharapova and Serena and Venus Williams have their own rosters of marketing partners?
KS: Tennis players are among the biggest celebrities around. According to Forbes, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are among the most powerful celebrities in the world (on a Top 50 list that includes Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Steven Spielberg and Jay-Z). Forbes lists Maria Sharapova as the highest-paid female athlete in the world. Roger Federer has created his own brand. And we can organically integrate that into our programming. Roger Federer has a relationship with Credit Suisse, and he goes to Hawaii to do an education program for the Roger Federer Foundation. We are there with them creating content and facilitating that to bring it to life. Putting that piece in the middle of a Federer match at the U.S. Open and have it told by Jim Courier or Martina Navratilova or Bill Macatee. That makes an impact.
NYSJ: How do you find a balance between expanding partner activation and not intruding into the game itself?
KS: You never want to take away from the fan or viewer experience. It is something about which we and our partners are very aware. Signage is one component, the on-court live component, which is separate and apart from media. It's a wonderful thing to have sight lines; it's very important. It's of great value, for example, to be on that back wall [along the court which is constantly on TV]. But the way that marketers take that to the next level, in the mind of consumers, is through activation. It's great to see [your brand] on a space on the wall. But if you are not activating, you are not bringing it to life.
NYSJ: Which companies understand how to activate around tennis?
KS: There are many that we work with. Chase has [signage] at the U.S. Open, but what brings it to life is understanding that Chase has a new program that enables their customers to gain easier access to the things that they want. And the kinds of customers that they have happen to be the same kind of customers who watch tennis and the Tennis Channel. It's pretty organic. The back wall is not our province. That belongs to the event itself. Our province is to lift and add dimension that. And there is no limit to that. If you do something organic and with authenticity in terms of mixing sponsorship brands and content on-air, people will thank you for it because it provides them with information and it's not an intrusion.
NYSJ: Has it been at all detrimental that American-born men are struggling to reach the top-ranked spots in the world?
KS: There was a point not long ago when American men were at the top — Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier — and before them players such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. So in some ways fans in the U.S. are waiting for the players currently on the Tour to reach the top. But when you watch the U.S. Open, the other Majors or any tennis matches throughout the year, I don't think fans in general root for or against a player because of his nationality. People root for Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray because they are great players, not because they are from Switzerland (Federer) or Great Britain (Murray). That is more the case during the Olympics, where many of the athletes are not really well known, and where people support their [respective] country because the Games specifically have nations competing against nations.
NYSJ: Would tennis be more popular in the U.S. if John Isner, Sam Querrey or another American-born player was No. 1 in the world? That current list seems to have gotten shorter with Andy Roddick announcing his retirement and Mardy Fish withdrawing during the U.S. Open due to health reasons.
KS: It would bring more attention to tennis in the U.S. and likely would attract the interest of casual and even non-tennis fans. But the game is growing here and tennis is doing a great job of getting more kids into the game. That's where you build and create fans and players for life. I have to believe that an American player will again be at the top, but I don't feel that the growth of the sport specifically depends on that.
NYSJ: What are your thoughts as you approach the 10th anniversary of the Tennis Channel?
KS: On the one hand, we are starting to feel old. But in reality, 10 years makes us one of the youngest companies in the history of the business. We are just an adolescent. People come to us all the time and see what we have accomplished. They look at our team of announcers and great writers, the great marketing and executive teams we have put together, our more than 4,300 hours of live coverage, the live streaming, our presence at the Majors, the mutli-platform marketing and the rest. People say to me, 'Wow! Look at what you've accomplished. You guys have really made it.' But we feel as if we are just getting started. We have just finished building the platform. We have opened a lot of doors, but there are still a lot more doors we want to open. When we started, no one thought that round-the-clock coverage of tennis made any sense. Today, we could have five channels devoted to tennis because there is so much interest and so much content being produced.