Steve Bellamy is the founder of the Tennis Channel, an independent cable TV company in Santa Monica, and is now embarking on a new project, the Ski Channel, set to launch in August. He cuts his own hair, never wears a necktie and has a full set of table games ping-pong, air hockey and bumper pool in his office, and describes himself as “an extreme workaholic.” The Indiana native came to Los Angeles to pursue a music career, but instead amassed huge debts. To make ends meet, he bought and sold guitars, often traveling to small towns in the Midwest to buy vintage instruments from pawnshops for $200. He would resell them to Japanese collectors in Los Angeles for as much as $1,200. Eventually, he obtained contracts from the city of Los Angeles to operate pro shops at the Westwood Tennis Center, L.A. Golf Academy and Palisades Tennis Center. The Tennis Person of the Year, awarded by Tennis News magazine, is called the Bellamy Award in his honor. Bellamy sat down with the Business Journal recently over lunch at a Pacific Palisades restaurant to discuss the highs and lows of his journey from struggling musician to cable entrepreneur.
Question: How did you get started in sports?
Answer: I was coaching tennis, but I was really trying to be a singer-songwriter. After 10 years of hard work, five albums and 1,000 shows, Beth and I started to have kids so I decided to go with tennis full time.
Q: The economics of sports are better than music?
A: As a musician I was somewhat successful, but I was making very little money and spending every dime on recording. At one point I had credit card debt up to my ears, my income was less than my rent, and I had hocked everything I owned including my car to finish a record. For transportation, I bought a car for $150 that didn’t run and got a Mobil Emergency Services membership that provided unlimited towing. For six months, I got towed to where I needed to go and then retowed back home.
Q: Sounds like an unsustainable lifestyle, especially in Los Angeles.
A: I remember one time driving around looking for an open parking spot for a lunch meeting in Brentwood. Needless to say, the driver was confused and even more so when he had to tow me back home. Eventually, Mobil dropped me from the program. My path has never been normal, but it always seemed to lead to grandmother’s house.
Q: What about the game of tennis itself? How do you explain its popularity?
A: I think it’s the most perfect sport. The athletes in tennis today are the best athletes in all of sports, and Roger Federer is probably the best athlete in the history of mankind. All those are big, bold statements, but I’ve argued them on ESPN and I always win.
Q: Let’s hear your logic.
A: Tennis is the only sport where you have to beat the whole world. If you play in the NBA, you’re competing mostly against one country, a subset of people who are 6-foot-5 or taller. It’s a small pool of people. Also, tennis is 11 months. A pro basketball player will play for five months, put the ball down and not touch it until next season. Tennis is a year-round, endless summer.
Q: What about tennis as a business?
A: It’s the stupidest sport, it’s so mismanaged. Why do we have an international tour? We have tennis players with rock-star status in the U.S. playing in Denmark. Michael Jordan was famous because he played in Chicago for years. “Friends” had a branded time slot. If every night, “Friends” had appeared on a different network at a different time, it wouldn’t have succeeded. That’s tennis.
Q: Also, it’s a rich man’s sport.
A: Used to be. There are 1 million tennis courts in America; 75 percent of them are free. There are not that many country clubs in America anymore. Minority tennis that’s where the growth is today.
Q: Why did you start a cable channel around the sport?
A: I grew frustrated with the lack of tennis on television. But the Tennis Channel shouldn’t have happened. It only happened because of my stupidity.
Q: How so?
A: We did a seed money deal with a bunch of ex-Viacom managers, some of whom Philippe Dauman and Tom Dooley are Viacom managers again. All was going well until 9/11. We had burned through $5 million in seed money and were teetering on bankruptcy.
Q: How close did you get to the brink?
A: For a 33-day period, I did not sleep more than an hour a night. I was a zombie running on desire. I sent out 800 packages trying to find capital. I made hundreds of cold calls to every private equity shop in the country and finally got the deal closed with days to spare before our distribution contracts were set to expire.
Q: What about your next project, the Ski Channel?
A: It’s a big, wide-open category that is not served on television. You can’t see much mountain sports on TV.
Q: But is now a good time to launch a niche channel?
A: The timing is perfect. Participation in skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, climbing, etc., is up. Capital investment in the resorts has been off the charts. The generation retiring now has acquired more wealth than any in history. They are looking for places to nest and hold extended family gatherings. Mountain resorts are perfect.
Q: Are you worried global warming will wipe out winter sports?
A: Supposedly the mountains will get a lot more snow for the next 30 years. So I’m less worried about no snow than about too much snow.
Q: What about the recession?
A: By the time the next ski season kicks in, we could be experiencing the positive economic craziness of two years ago. Ski resorts are basically filled with the most affluent people in the world. The lower socioeconomic set that mostly skis and snowboards locally have a much lower investment in the industry and won’t be a needle-mover.
Q: So you’re betting the downturn won’t affect most skiers?
A: Yeah, outside of the cabins of private jets or an Arab sheik summit, I don’t think there is anywhere in the world with a higher density of spectacular wealth than a ski resort.
Q: Is the ski industry ready to buy advertising on its own channel?
A: Certainly. Most of these ski resorts are now jointly owned by private equity or public companies. Jackson Hole just finished a new lift for $30 million. Crested Butte spent $200 million to upgrade its resort. For sure, there are a lot of people who will need to advertise.
Q: How do the investors plan on making back that money?
A: A lot of them own real estate. If you make your resort attractive it drives up the price of the surrounding real estate. Mountain property prices are through the roof, so it doesn’t take many homes to make back that nut. Today there’s a home on the market in Yellowstone for $135 million. In Aspen there’s one for $125 million, another for $75 million.
Q: Talk about your “year-round theory” and the private equity strategy.
A: Good point. They’re trying to 365-ize these resorts. Hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking summer alpine sports. So we’ll be in concert with them on television to promote year-round activities at the resorts.
Q: What was the turning point in your career?
A: Getting the contract at the Palisades Tennis Center. It was a little public park that had four people taking lessons each week, a tennis shop that had become a candy store and an area behind the courts that was a haven for crack cocaine trafficking. I took it over 13 years ago. For the last decade, it has been one of the most successful tennis centers in the world. Every week 400 to 500 people play there.
Q: Has the quality of play improved?
A: The Saturday morning open workout has been running for 13 years, and every time I go I’m blown away. Probably 95 of the 100 best points I have ever seen happened on that little broken-down public court, as opposed to Centre Court at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.
Q: Are certain personalities attracted to certain sports?
A: Yes, normally competitive people gravitate towards sports. But in the ski world, more people do it for the art and the outdoors and the personal challenge than for competition. That’s not to say skiers and snowboarders aren’t competitive. I had lunch with Bode Miller not long ago and he raced me to the table.
Q: But aren’t these just fun and games?
A: There are life lessons on the court you can’t get anywhere else. I can look any parent in the eye and say, “I should be calling child services if you don’t get your kid in tennis.”
: What is your advice to readers who might want to invest in sports?
A: I like investments that I can touch, feel and make a difference in. If you own a stake in a team, you can get on the horn and pump up ticket sales. You can chalk up some of your losses as worthwhile because you got some tangible fun out of them. Life is for living and I think investments you can enjoy are a smart leveraging of your capital.
Q: If you had to move into another career, what would it be?
A: I love filmmaking and produced a documentary last year on the Rube Goldberg Machine Competition. I see return on investment in making microbudget documentaries.