Tennis Channel’s French Open Foray

It’s Paris in the springtime, and Ken Solomon is once again in the City of Light. The chairman/CEO of Tennis Channel flew from the independent network’s Santa Monica, CA, offices last Wednesday to prepare for the French Open fortnight. Tennis Channel, the primary U.S.-rights holder to Roland Garros, in its ninth year with the clay-court Grand Slam.

During the event, the network will offer more than 260 total hours of day-to-night coverage, highlighted by 85 hours of live or first-run matches, some 45 hours of encore replays, and 122 hours of three-hour nightly primetime show French Open Tonight (37½ hours in first-run). The lineup includes new preview shows Racquet Bracket: French Open and Tennis Channel Live at the French Open.

Solomon — who helped host the French Open players party at the Eiffel Tower on May 21, with snippets from the soiree airing on the network and its digital properties — notes that the additions are in keeping with Tennis Channel’s using the French as a platform to introduce programming and services.

Last year, the network launched Tennis Channel Plus, a hybrid streaming subscription service. Tennis’s first year with the tournament in 2007 marked the debut of DirecTV’s multiscreen Mosaic channel, which provides subscribers with views of courts beyond the network’s primary feed.

“The French is our biggest effort in terms of coverage,” Solomon says. “It’s the start of tennis’s summer Slam season. We feel comfortable [in Paris.]”

He is jazzed for the tourney, usually the province of Rafa Nadal, who has won five in a row and nine of the past 10 French Opens. “The King of Clay,” though, has struggled this spring.

“Certainly, no one is counting him out, but you can’t assume it’s Rafa’s tourney. [World No. 1] Novak [Djokovic] has been incredible, and you never know with Roger [Federer],” he says. “I’m no less excited for the women, with the year [No. 1] Serena Williams is having. Maria [Sharapova] is the defending champion. Caroline Wozniacki has been playing well. [Victoria] Azarenka is on the comeback trail, and Petra [Kvitova] is truly playing ‘big-babe’ tennis. I’m also interested to see how Madison Keys performs after the Australian Open [she lost in the semifinals to Williams].”

He believes fans will be ready to jump on Tennis’s court; coverage began on Sunday.

“It took viewers a while to figure things out. But they now know they can see action from first ball to all of our encore coverage,” he says. “They are going to be ready to go from the start.”

Tennis also plays doubles partner of sorts for ESPN and NBC, providing production that saves them equipment and personnel costs. Under an alliance in which they also exchange match rights, Tennis handles production for ESPN at the French, and it’s vice versa at the Australian Open. Solomon says Tennis began offering production for NBC, which holds the rights to the finals and other marquee French matches, four years ago.

Gains in Linear, Connected-TV Distribution
More viewers will get to see Tennis Channel’s Parisian presentations. With a combination of digital-basic and sports-tier positioning, the network counts some 35 million subscribers, via deals with all the top 10 linear providers, except Cablevision, and a master agreement with National Television Cooperative, whose small operator members can opt into the deal.

During the French Open, Tennis’s subscriber base swells to 55 million through free previews with DirecTV and Dish Network, opening the network to a wider swath of the satellite companies’ subscribers.

Moreover, Solomon says, Tennis Channel now has access to an additional 25 million homes in the connected-TV arena with Apple TV and Roku, which added Tennis to its lineup in March. Although declining to share specific tallies, he says his channel is prominently positioned above the fold on Apple TV and is one of its “top performers in gross sales.”

Retailing for $69.95 annually, Tennis Channel Plus, which also can be linked to Roku and Apple TV, features not only live simulcasts of linear coverage but also vast on-demand features and more than 600 additional live matches from 50 tourneys not shown on the network’s air. The streaming subscription service is accessible to anyone, even non-linear subscribers.

“The product has evolved since its launch last year, and we’ve improved the user experience,” Solomon says. “It’s a great complement to the network and an option for cord-shavers or cord-nevers.”

Most linear subscribers can watch Tennis Channel on computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Solomon says the service has TV Everywhere pacts in place with 80%-85% of its affiliate roster, absent Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Comcast has been engaged in a long program-access battle with the network, which is attempting to gain distribution equivalent to that of Golf Channel and NBCSN, both part of NBCUniversal, the MSO’s programming arm. Although an FCC decision initially fell on Tennis Channel’s side of the net, subsequent rulings have not, including the reversal of the commission’s initial call. Solomon says Tennis will continue to pursue legal options.

Courting Advertisers
At this stage, Tennis Channel doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen’s NTI national measurement service but uses NSI to help gauge viewership on a local-market basis. Solomon says Tennis guarantees CPMs and impressions, and its pitch also trades on its balanced (54% male-46% female) and upscale audience.

“We have significant rights exclusivities, are gender-neutral, and have the most affluent audience in all of television,” says Solomon, citing various metrics in the Ipsos Affluent Study 2014 Doublebase (formerly the Mendelsohn Affluent Study) and Rentrak TV Essentials January-December 2014 data.

That net approach has augmented its advertising base, which counts Lacoste, Capital One, Geico, Garnier, Mercedes-Benz, Fidelity, Raymond James, and DirecTV as key French Open sponsors.

Solomon notes that, with Madison Avenue’s interest growing, Tennis has relinquished category exclusivities and has attracted multiple cars, including Acura and Porsche, to its air, as well as IBM in the tech sector and Chase in the financial category.

Tennis doesn’t hold a single major upfront presentation. Instead, Solomon says, it conducts hundreds of meetings — “shop by shop” — and is increasing inventory sales during the upfront period. The sport’s non-stop season makes for year-round sales opportunities

US Open Change
Next month, Tennis will again be setting up shop at SW 19 with its encore and highlight coverage on its Wimbledon Primetime show. In late summer, it will deploy a similar strategy in Flushing Meadow, NY.

Tennis had the opportunity to renew its live US Open rights — largely weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday nights during the middle weekend — through a significant increase in a sublicensing agreement with the tourney’s now sole rightsholder, ESPN (CBS ended its 47-year run with the 2014 event.)

Citing “fiduciary responsibilities,” Solomon says Tennis passed on live coverage of the US Open and instead is using the money for investments in production of other tournaments, including the “fifth majors” at Indian Wells and Miami, around the tennis calendar, its studio facility, shows, and Tennis Channel Plus.

Nevertheless, he says Tennis will still have a huge presence in Queens, curating the best matches, highlights, and analysis of the day on US Open Tonight, beginning at 11 p.m. ET. Plans also call for expanding the daily preview show from one to three hours.

Solomon says, with that schedule, Tennis Channel will retain its position as a valuable US Open source for viewers and advertisers.

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