Tennis' Affiliate-Sales Team Scores Points

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The Tennis Channel has completed ramping up its new in-house affiliates sales department, with the unit now fully staffed and tallying up nearly 50 system launches last month alone.

The department, led by senior vice president of distribution Randy Brown, earlier this month hired its eleventh member, ESPN and Fox Sports veteran Jaime Pena, as the new account manager for the Rocky Mountain region.

The network has concluded making the transition to in-house sales, after Comedy Central handed its affiliate sales for 15 months under a highly unusual arrangement that was struck in 2002.

When Viacom Inc. acquired Time Warner Inc.'s half of Comedy Central last year, The Tennis Channel knew it would have to either find another outsider to handle its affiliate sales or take them in-house.

THANKS, COMEDY

"It was clear that the bulk of that [Comedy Central affiliate sales] staff was going to be let go, so we basically reached an agreement to unwind our partnership effective June 30 [last year]," Brown said. "Comedy was great. We'd probably still be using them if Viacom had not acquired Time Warner's interest. But I think we've made a very successful transition to having a dedicated team."

In fact, Tennis retained Comedy Central's Cathy Dunn as vice president for its Eastern division, stationed in Atlanta. "It gave us real continuity," Brown said.

Tennis has one affiliate sales person in New York, and five each in Atlanta and Santa Monica, Calif. From last August through December, with the in-house sales force, the network has launched on 137 systems, with 49 rollouts in December alone.

In the fourth quarter, some of the bigger launches came from Time Warner Cable in the New York DMA; Adelphia Communications in West Palm Beach, Fla., Los Angeles, Cleveland and Colorado Springs; and Cox Communications in Atlanta.

The Big Apple debut was a landmark, with Time Warner Cable of New York and New Jersey, which serves 1.4 million homes, placing Tennis on a new digital sports tier that also includes NBA TV, three Fox Sports Digital Networks and alternative-sports service Fuel.

"We're coming off great momentum," Brown said.

But he declined to comment on the network's subscriber count, saying rollouts on digital and sports tiers are just in the process of unfolding.

As a start-up, Tennis — which tossed in its first programming serve last spring — had turned to Comedy Central for affiliate sales for a variety of reasons, according to Brown. "It came about because of our desire to enter the market very quickly with a seasoned team of sales executives who had established relationships with affiliates, while at the same time saving a significant amount of overhead."

With its Comedy deal over, Tennis weighed several options, including talking to another standalone network, Court TV, about handling its affiliate sales, according to Brown.

At Court TV, a spokeswoman said, "We looked at it, but we couldn't come up with mutually beneficial terms."

But Brown said Tennis simply determined that it would be best-served in the long run by forming its own sales force.

"Admittedly, it costs us more, but we think that expense is offset by having a dedicated team that's not distracted by the challenges of representing one or more other networks," Brown said. "It's a handpicked team."

He also pointed out that all these affiliate-sales people play the racquet sport, and have a literal stake in Tennis.

"Everyone in our company, not just our sales force, every employee at The Tennis Channel is an equity holder," Brown said. "They are very vested in our success. That's very hard to replicate with an outside group. People who are partial owners of their company perform differently than those who aren't. They spend every dime like it's their own. In the end it is. "

PRIORITIES

The Tennis Channel's big push this year includes trying to land corporate deals with major distributors such as Comcast Corp., DirecTV Inc., EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network, Charter Communications Corp. and Cablevision Systems Corp.

When Comedy Central had its partnership with Tennis, Brown would actually handle the corporate deals with the Top 15 MSOs. The network has such deals with Time Warner Cable, Cox, Insight Communications Corp., Adelphia, the National Cable Television Cooperative and Voom, Cablevision's recently launched direct-broadcast satellite service.

Comedy Central's sales force would be out in the field, trying to convince individual systems and divisions to launch the network.

Brown hired affiliate-sales reps who also have experience in the marketing end of the business, which is a big plus, to support Tennis affiliates.

For example, in October Cox and the channel teamed up in Las Vegas for a promotion with Andre Agassi, one that supported the local Boys and Girls Clubs. There were more than 100 underprivileged kids running around the tennis courts and "hitting with Andre Agassi," according to Brown.

"That's the kind of thing that Comedy wasn't really charged with doing," he said.

On the programming side, Tennis earlier this month strengthened its tournament roster, announcing a three-year deal with the Women's Tennis Association's WTA Tour for 13 events.

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