Tennis Channel CEO Says It's Not About Commercials, It's About Brand Integration

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(This article, with an excerpted Q&A, is reprinted
with permission from NYSportsJournalism.com)


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 says 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. Solomon spoke
with NYSportsJournalism.com about the growth of the sport, tennis marketing and
the outlook for Tennis Channel as it nears its 10th anniversary.

What is your
opinion about the game of tennis in 2012?

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.

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?

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.

Historically,
commercials were the foundation around which marketing campaigns were built.
But how is Tennis Channel using its access to multimedia platforms to drive
marketing and partnership deals?

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.

How important is it
that players such as Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Serena and Venus
Williams have their own rosters of marketing partners?

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.

How do you find a
balance between expanding partner activation and not intruding into the game
itself?

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.

Which companies
understand how to activate around tennis?

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.

Has it been at all
detrimental that American-born men are struggling to reach the top-ranked spots
in the world?

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.

What are your
thoughts as you approach the 10th anniversary of the Tennis Channel?
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 multiplatform
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.

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