Friday, August 09, 2002

Tennis Channel to test fans' interest

Cable network in development, facing questions

By Gary Estwick,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — Pete Sampras invited the soon-to-debut Tennis Channel to join him and Andy Roddick on a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles two weeks ago.

        With cameras rolling, Sampras spent about three hours talking tennis. He was even enticed to wake up a sleeping Roddick with a sprinkle of water.

        “That's what people want to see,” Sampras said. “They see me play tennis; they know what I do. But to see something a little bit different, I think, is a little appealing.”

        That's what the Tennis Channel is banking on, with promises of a behind-the-scenes view of tennis and its star players.

        No specific launch date has been set, but Time Warner Cable, which provides service in Cincinnati, has agreed to make the channel available here when it does debut.

        The all-tennis channel could be as cool as its executives are saying. But there are questions. Will the average sports fan tune in to an all-tennis channel?

        “Probably not,” said Patrick McEnroe, who is captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and a tennis analyst. “The average sports fan, we have to struggle to get them to watch the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

        “It's obviously aimed at people that are gung ho about tennis. It's just a question of, are there enough tennis fans out there to keep it afloat?”

        Steve Bellamy, president and founder of the Tennis Channel, said there are enough fans. If the Golf Channel can do it, Bellamy said, the Tennis Channel can.

        Bellamy said golf has Tiger Woods, one of the most recognizable figures in sports today, but tennis has more stars, such as the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena), Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova.

        “Some people go to Anna Kournikova's Web site that have never seen her hit a tennis ball,” Bellamy said.

        So is there enough tennis being played for 24-hour, seven-day-a-week programming? Bellamy says yes. The Tennis Channel will mix in coverage of 14 pro events in the United States (both men's and women's tours) along with junior tournaments. And more events will be added.

        The channel also is discussing the possibility of broadcasting Grand Slam qualifying and doubles matches.

        “We've been surprised at how some tournaments are interested in having large components of their tournaments on the Tennis Channel,” Bellamy said.

        Bruce Flory, tournament director of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, said he worries about the market becoming diluted.

        “There's a balance, and there's having too much,” Flory said, “and being able to distinguish between the big, important tournaments and the smaller ones (is important).”

        Will the sport's athletes, known for their inaccessibility, conform and cooperate?

        “We have gone to the players and basically said, "If you want to have your own (channel), you have to cooperate.' We can't have a tennis channel without the players,” Bellamy said.

   ATP Masters Results & Schedule


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