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Backhand Smash

Tennis’ marquee events Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are mired in mostly flat television ratings, while the sport is still hungering for the shine that big-name stars like Martina Navratilova and Andre Agassi had in their prime.


But from their Santa Monica base, executives of the Tennis Channel see nothing but winners on the courts. More people are buying tennis balls and rackets, a new generation of players such as Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova is making waves, and cable ratings of lower-level tennis events are on the rise.


The allure might not equal that of its 1980s heyday when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe thrilled fans with their rivalry, but Tennis Channel executives are cutting deals with local cable providers to bring the nation’s only 24-hour tennis channel to millions of households from the U.S. Virgin Islands to North Dakota.


The Tennis Channel expanded onto 30 new cable systems in June and July, bolstered by a March agreement with Comcast Corp. that widens its current availability to 10 million households.


“We’ve got a lot going on we’re trying to build a network here,” said Ken Solomon, who came to the Tennis Channel as chief executive in April. “We have a very specific eye toward growth and expanding our model in different markets.”


But will people be watching?


The Tennis Channel has secured rights to cover 43 of the 50 events of the United States Tennis Association’s U.S. Open Series excluding the U.S. Open, the marquee event in late August and early September.


CBS broadcasts the U.S. Open, which attracted 2.4 million television viewers in 2004, down from 2.6 million the prior year and the peak of 5.5 million in 1991, according to Nielsen Media Research.


Likewise, tennis’ signature event, Wimbledon, has dipped in viewership since hitting its peak of nearly 8 million viewers in 1981. In 2005 it drew 2.5 million viewers.


Still, the Tennis Channel is gambling on increased public interest in both the sport and its lifestyle. The network broadcasts not only middle-tier events such as the Davis Cup and Fed Cup tournaments, but also tennis instruction, analysis and commentary, along with profiles of top stars.


ESPN reported in September 2004 that viewership for the nine hours of the U.S. Open Series that it carries was up 75 percent from the same programming in 2003.


Solomon said the Tennis Channel doesn’t have the money to outbid CBS or ESPN for high-profile events such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Instead, the network is aiming for hard-core aficionados, who draw disproportionately from the higher socioeconomic classes coveted by advertisers.



Narrow but devoted


David Carter, president of the Sports Business Group, a Redondo Beach-based consultancy, said the Tennis Channel appeals to a fairly narrow but devoted audience. Like golf, which also has its own cable channel, tennis is both a spectator sport and one in which large numbers of people participate, ensuring a tie-in between the programming and merchandisers.


“Ultimately it’s not just the quantity of the households they’re reaching but also how demographically strong and contained their viewers are,” Carter said. “With tennis, it’s really a target-rich environment.”


The Tennis Channel currently does not subscribe to the nation’s leading television ratings service, Nielsen Media Research. Executives at the network declined to release their own viewership numbers.


Television sports consultant Dantia Gould said that without marquee events like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, the Tennis Channel is unlikely to break through to large mainstream audiences. But Gould said that the Golf Channel which launched in 1995 and now is available in more than 70 million U.S. households has thrived without huge ratings.


“I always think that channels like the Tennis Channel and the Golf Channel are niche stations, really broadcasting for the hardcore fan,” Gould said. “If you want to watch tennis features and lifestyle programming and replays of the major events, there’s nothing else like it. There is a place for something like the Tennis Channel.”


The Tennis Channel is financed by a variety of investment groups, including Apollo Partners and DND Capital Partners LLC, as well as tennis legends Agassi and Pete Sampras.


Besides inking dozens of distribution deals with cable networks around the country, the channel is renovating and expanding its Santa Monica headquarters. It is building a permanent warren of studios featuring the network’s logo and tennis backdrops to supplement its portable broadcast booths. And the channel is rolling out more live programming this year.


Solomon maintains that lower-profile events like the U.S. Open Series are producing a new crop of stars that someday will have the appeal of Roddick and Sharapova or even Agassi and Navratilova and that many viewers will be drawn by the prospect of seeing tomorrow’s stars today.


“For our viewers, they know that 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year for all practical purposes, they’re going to see the best tennis players in the world on our air,” Solomon said. “It’s the sport at its best.”

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