When people lob the question “Tennis, anyone?” to Ken Solomon, he has always come out swinging.
Part of a tennis family, Solomon — who once served as a ball boy for a Davis Cup match between the U.S. and Mexico — has been playing since his youth. At this point in his playing career, he’s still looking to improve his second serve.
He’s also planning to punch up the original programming, and boost carriage, for his new employer, The Tennis Channel.
The TV and entertainment industry veteran on April 1 succeeded co-founder David Meister as the independent’s chairman and CEO.
LEFT FINE LIVING
Solomon — founding president of Scripps Networks’ Fine Living network until he left last September — joins a service that has secured rights to some 60 events around the globe, recently acquiring the ATP Tour event in Scottsdale, Ariz.
And under Meister, Tennis scored carriage commitments with top distributors Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp., Bright House Networks and the National Cable Television Cooperative among others.
He capped it with a recent agreement with the biggest fish of all, Comcast Corp.
Together, network executives say these deals give Tennis the potential of some 50 million cable homes.
But penetration has been stymied to some degree by positioning on paid digital sports tiers, which have not grown as quickly as many MSOs and networks anticipated. (See related story, page 44.)
Solomon expects Tennis to have 8 to 10 million subscribers later this year, and envisions a larger universe down the road as the network broadens its programming to include more lifestyle fare.
“Steve Bellamy [the president and co-founder] and the executives here have done great job of establishing relationships with the tournaments, the competitions, the stars and the tennis community. The baseline, so to speak, has been set,” he said. “Now, we need to widen the appeal by bringing in more lifestyle programming that showcases these young, fit, attractive and charismatic players.”
To that end, Solomon will work with executive vice president of production and marketing Bruce Rider to develop more “series, specials, short-form segments and lifestyle programming aimed at bringing viewers 'closer and closer’ to marquee talent many of whom go by their first names, like Andre [Agassi], Serena [Williams], Roger [world’s No. 1 Federer], and Maria” Sharapova, the defending Wimbledon champion.
At Fine Living, Solomon built a network with an all-original lineup that, when he left a little over two years after its launch, was in about 23 million homes.
His resume also includes stints as president of Universal Studios Television and co-head of DreamWorks Television. And he has held various senior management positions at News Corp., including gigs at Fox Broadcasting, Twentieth Century Fox Domestic Television and FX.
EYEING A BREAKOUT
He said distributors want to see Tennis programming broadened — to justify a breakout from sports tiers to more highly penetrated tiers.
The recent Comcast deal allows for such a breakout, Solomon said.
He and other Tennis officials point out Comcast potentially is a great doubles partner: the top U.S. cable company serves communities that represent 15 of the nation’s top 20 tennis markets in terms of participation and spectator and viewing interest.
Increased penetration would lead to greater interest on Madison Avenue. Tennis has already scored with a number of advertisers in such categories as autos, including Acura and Mercedes-Benz, and with such big names as Microsoft, Nike and American Express.
Solomon expects the ad base to grow alongside distribution and through the creation of “unique packages.”
Tennis industry stats say there are some 60 million enthusiasts in this country, including 24 million who play regularly, Rider and Solomon said. Its appeal has moved beyond the country club. “It’s a sport enjoyed by young and old. The fastest growing segments are Latinos and African-Americans,” said Solomon.
He also said the sport has strong appeal among women. “It’s nice to see that the person who controls the checkbook has great interest in the sport, and can make the decision to purchase Tennis as part of a sports/entertainment tier, or a broader package.”
Solomon and Rider dismissed sentiment that the aging or retirement of prominent American players could hurt Tennis’s push, stating there are many up-and-coming players.
Plus top players like Andy Roddick and Lindsay Davenport still punish balls on the circuits.
They see a global sport, with players whose performances and personalities transcend borders.
“I don’t think fans and young people think of Maria Sharapova as a Russian, but rather as a very interesting person with an intriguing story to tell,” Rider said. He named other players poised to break into the mainstream. “Giselle Dulko, for one,” he said. “She’s a beautiful, charming Argentine, And she happens to be ranked 30th in the world at this time. People are going to want to get to know her.”
MEISTER STEPS BACK
Meister, a former Home Box Office executive, said he’s going to step back from the cable game at this time.
“It has been my pleasure to work with Steve Bellamy and the dedicated professionals at The Tennis Channel to meet the demand for a network dedicated to tennis,” Meister said in a statement. “It’s been a sprint of marathon proportions, and I’m looking forward to taking a break, and getting to spend more time with my family. I’m confident that the network is well poised for even greater success.”
Solomon declined to discuss whether he had taken an equity stake in the channel, or if Meister was retaining his.