Biondi's cabler looking for a little love

Frank Biondi, the former top executive of Universal Studios and Viacom Inc., plans to set up Tennis Channel, a 24-hour digital cable network to launch in the summer of 2002.

The network, funded by Biondi and a group of former Viacom executives to the tune of at least $30 million, would cover live matches, schedule instructional videos, produce interviews with players and coaches in a magazine format and present classic tennis matches from previous decades.

But the obstacles to success of the Tennis Channel, which will have its headquarters in Los Angeles, are formidable, according to Neal Pilson, sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports.

Pilson said the channel “is marching into the teeth of a difficult economic marketplace for sports across the board. Sports distributors are missing their budgets by as much as 15% to 25% — even racing events, which are getting record ratings, are not reaching their advertising budgets.”

Golf as blueprint

But Dave Meister, chairman and CEO of Tennis Channel, said he’s using the Golf Channel as a “role model.” Golf Channel started six years ago with some pessimistic predictions of its staying power, “and it’s now reaching 40-million homes, becoming profitable in year four,” Meister said. “And tennis tournaments are cheaper to cover than golf tournaments.”

In a news conference, Biondi said his investors will be able to put up anywhere from $30 million to $100 million to get The Tennis Channel up and running with a full schedule of programming. The network will spend the lower figure if cable operators are not able to drive advanced digital set-top boxes into people’s homes at a speedy clip.

Digital piggyback

Meister’s hope is that cable operators will decide to buy Tennis Channel as one of their lures to get subscribers to embrace the digital boxes. Under that scenario, Tennis Channel would ramp up its spending to get better programming and to create high-visibility marketing campaigns.

Joining Biondi in funding Tennis Channel are the former Viacom executives Tom Dooley, Terry Elkes, Philippe Dauman, Ken Gorman and Ed Horowitz. Another investor is IMG, the global sports entrepreneur, which will provide tournaments, instructional programming and tapes of classic matches. Meister said the network is willing to offer equity stakes in Tennis Channel to cable operators for clearance on their systems.

Tennis coach and promoter Steve Bellamy is president and founder of Tennis Channel.

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