Published: Sunday, July 21, 2002
Channel will air 24 hours of tennis
By Greg Hernandez
All tennis, all the time.
The 24-hour sports and news channel may be a permanent television fixture but do viewers want to see the likes of Andre, Serena, Venus and other top tennis players 24/7?
The Tennis Channel is the brainchild of tennis entrepreneur Steve Bellamy, left, and television executive David Meister. (Gene Blevins / Daily News)
The forces behind The Tennis Channel, a venture set to make its debut late this year, think so. They are confident their slate of around-the-clock programming, ranging from various tournaments to a daily tennis news program, will not only draw a strong base of devotees but expose the sport and its players to new legions of fans.
Working furiously behind the scenes to prepare the venture for its launch is the unlikely team of veteran television executive David Meister and Steve Bellamy, a tennis entrepreneur who owns and operates the Pacific Palisades Tennis Center.
"We realized we shared the same idea," said Meister, chairman and chief executive officer. "I had the television perspective and Steve had the tennis perspective and it just started making more and more sense."
Meister was a senior vice president at HBO where he established HBO Sports and launched Cinemax. He was also president of the Financial News Network and created The Sundance Channel for Robert Redford.
Bellamy, president and founder of The Tennis Channel, is the half of the team with the strong connections to the tennis world. He coached former pro Derrick Rostangno and others, has been an instructor to studio heads, politicians and stars and is married to 1983 NCAA Champion Beth Herr who was once ranked in the top 20 professionally.
Sitting in a conference room at the channel's modest Santa Monica offices, the long- and wavy-haired Bellamy, 38, jokingly describes himself and the much-older Meister -- he declined to give his age -- as the "the odd couple." The two began their venture by turning Bellamy's Pacific Palisades guest house into a makeshift office, from which they worked to develop their business plan.
"As much as anything else, Steve and I are having a great time doing this," said Meister, who said he was inspired by the success of a similar venture, The Golf Channel.
Meister and Bellemy said it was the advent of digital cable, which allows cable systems the capacity to offer a greater array of channels, that paved the way for the channel to come together much faster than it would have otherwise.
They have secured the rights to more than 1,000 hours of U.S. tournaments with some international events expected to be added later. The channel's content will be approximately 40 percent televised tournaments, 20 percent news and personalities and about 40 percent participatory programs dealing with such topics as instruction and equipment.
In addition, at times some classic matches featuring some of the games' legends will be aired , along with a smattering of other racket sports such as badminton, table tennis and paddle tennis.
Former top-ranked British pro John Lloyd is a member of The Tennis Channel's advisory board and said a channel devoted exclusively to tennis is long overdue.
"It's about time, to be honest," said Lloyd, a 1977 Australian Open finalist. "I'm sick and tired of seeing tennis pushed back as almost a secondary sport in a lot of ways. It offers so much, it's a game for life and there are so few sports like that."
A major coup for The Tennis Channel came last month when it entered a 15-year affiliation agreement with Time Warner Cable. The deal secures distribution for the tennis network on all of Time Warner systems, as the company has committed to launching the tennis programming systemwide within the first year of the channel's debut.
Other long-term agreements are also in place, including one with the National Cable Television Cooperative that includes Adelphia, Mediacome and CableOne.
"Cable operators need first-run, original programming like this in order to grow," said Mike Pandzik, president and CEO of the cooperative.
L-R: lead investor Frank Biondi, Chairman and CEO David Meister, investor Pete Sampras, founder and President Steve Bellamy. (Gene Blevins / Daily News)
Among the programs already sealed is "Winning Ugly" to be hosted by Brad Gilbert, a retired tennis pro who wrote a popular book with the same title a few years ago. There are also talks taking place with two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin to have an on-air role with the channel.
The lead investor in the channel is former Viacom head Frank Biondi as well as Tom Dooley and Terry Elkes, also former Viacom top executives. Also investing is top sports management and marketing agency IMG and seven-time Wimbledon Champion Pete Sampras.
Bellamy and Meister said more than 70 million Americans over the age of 35 are tennis enthusiasts, equally divided between men and women. They say this aspect makes the new channel an appealing product to a wide range of advertisers.
The partners say they want to present fans with "the whole story" of the sport and wouldn't commit such egregious offenses as editing out entire games or sets of a match to fit it into a two-hour time slot, which NBC and ESPN have often done, or cutting away to faces in the audience when players are walking to the net to shake hands.
"Those are magic moments," Bellamy said.
Many in the tennis world have publicly endorsed the channel, including fourth-ranked women's player Monica Seles and tennis commentator Chris Evert. Retired legend Billie Jean King, who is a member of the channel's advisory board, said fans will be "ravenous" to get the channel.
Sampras is not only a financial investor, he is featured in advertisements for the channel, sits on the advisory board and will participate in instructional shows.
Lloyd, who won two Wimbledon and one French Open mixed doubles championships in the early 1980s, has been a television commentator for the BBC and HBO in recent years and is set for an on-air gig with the channel. He believes tennis has the potential to connect with a widespread audience like the sport did in the 1970s and 1980s before a slow fade began.
"We had that big boom with Connors, Borg and McEnroe when television was really pushing tennis, and it was an exciting era with personalities and a lot of people took up the game," Lloyd said. "We lost our way a little bit. We have very few crossover stars in the men's game but of course with the women, Venus and Serena Williams are the greatest tennis story in history and possibly greatest sports story in history, no question."
In addition to the Williams sisters, women's tennis has several other crossover stars who are on a first-name basis with the public: Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis. In contrast, with the exception of Agassi and possibly Sampras, the men's top players are far from household names.
"It's embarrassing that our promotion has been so poor," Lloyd said.
Lloyd said the Tennis Channel is the perfect venue to showcase attractive up-and-coming American stars like Andy Roddick and James Blake, who have had strong results on the tennis court and are drawing attention off it.
"This will create a good stir," Lloyd said. "I think it's going to be a fun ride, a really interesting thing."