Tennis Channel Basks in Open's Glare

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With the tennis world focused on the U.S. Open at the National Tennis Center in nearby Flushing, The Tennis Channel served up investment, sponsorship and programming news of its own here last week.

Tennis great Andre Agassi will join the fledgling network as an investor and spokesman, network chairman David Meister and president Steve Bellamy said at an Aug. 27 press conference.

The network, slated to premiere before year-end, will not only benefit from Agassi's funding and profile, but some of his philanthropic efforts will be chronicled on-air, said the network officials.

Tennis, which already has carriage pacts with Time Warner Cable and the National Cable Television Cooperative, is also making more progress on the distribution side of the net, according to Meister.

"We currently have 27 million homes under contract," he said. "We're continuing to negotiate with other distributors and hope to double that or so by the time we launch."

When Tennis bows, it should be turned on in "between 2 and 4 million homes," including subscribers from Time Warner, the NCTC and other parties, said Meister.

"There have been strong indications that as part of the deals, they would start carrying Tennis Channel at launch," he said.

At the press conference, Tennis Channel also announced that it has signed Wilson Racquet Sports as a charter advertiser.

Director of global marketing Brian Dillman said the division of Wilson Sporting Goods would spend "multimillions" on advertising over the life of the long-term deal. Dillman was "reallocating resources from other places" and reviewing its print budget to help fund its first foray into TV advertising.

Wilson won't just run ads across the channel's programming. It'll also give viewers a look at how equipment is developed. Wilson's endorsers, who include Pete Sampras (also a Tennis Channel investor and spokesman) and Venus and Serena Williams, will also be involved in segments, ranging from profiles to instructional tips.

Tennis also said it had acquired the TV rights to eight additional men's and women's pro tournaments in Europe, Asia and the U.S., including the prestigious Family Circle Cup, and the Siebel Open from San Jose, Calif. Bellamy said the latter will be Tennis's first televised domestic tournament, next February.

TEAM TENNIS

Elsewhere, the network will also be playing doubles with World Team Tennis on live event coverage, as well as with archival footage. The agreement also encompasses marketing and promotion of the WTT pro league. This pact brings Meister full circle. A former HBO executive, the premium service covered the team version of the sport back in the late 1970s.

Tennis Channel officials and Women's Tennis Association CEO Kevin Wulff also said the parties were nearing the completion of a pact that would encompass a "wide range of ideas and initiatives on and off the court."

A new regionalized sponsorship strategy the women's tour is pursuing could net ad dollars for Tennis, Wulff added.

"It's very important for our national and regional sponsors to be brand- and marketing-driven," he said. "Like the other sports, we want them to express themselves in the media. That's not always been done."

Tennis also gave press conference attendees a glimpse of its first original series, No Strings, a glimpse into the lifestyles of pro tennis players off the court. Tennis screened ATP star Andy Roddick hanging out with Sampras on the latter's plane. Other planned profile subjects include Lindsay Davenport and James Blake.

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