With an eye clearly on the recent sales of The Golf Channel and Speedvision, a group of ex-Viacom executives is backing The Tennis Channel, a planned digital cable channel focused on that sport.
Based for now in Santa Monica, Calif., The Tennis Channel aims to provide a mix of tournament coverage, instruction and news of tennis stars. The network is being run by David Meister, an ex-HBO executive who is also a former president of Financial News Network and advised Robert Redford on the startup of the Sundance Channel. Tennis coach and promoter Steve Bellamy is president.
First-round investors include Frank Biondi, former president of Viacom, Universal and Home Box Office; Tom Dooley and Phillipe Dauman, also ex-presidents; and Viacomers that go a lot further back, including Terry Elkes, CEO of Viacom before Sumner Redstone bought control, and ex-Viacom tech wiz Ed Horowitz.
"Tennis is ripe. Television is ripe." said Meister, who has long been an active tennis player but still has a weak backhand.
The venture has more clout than money. So far, the investors have put up just a few million dollars to get things going, one insider said. Ultimately, the operation will probably need $75 million or more. Biondi said the executives will be involved in working on additional financing rounds.
The network is similar to The Golf Channel and Speedvision, looking to subsist in the early days on low-profile tournaments and early rounds of big tournaments, which the broadcast nets and even ESPN have no interest in. But those matches often feature major players, though generally not pitted against each other.
Most important, the network has the backing of IMG, the key promoter and agent in professional tennis. That offers credibility and entrée as the network seeks TV rights and athletes' support.
Cable executives said they generally like the concept, although they question how many people would tune in for minor matches. Launch is scheduled for next summer, and Meister wouldn't say what kind of a license fee he expects to charge operators.