By Barry Janoff
September 8, 2012: In 2003, Tennis Channel was a fledgling cable station that reached three million homes and had limited access to the players and tournaments that drove the sport.
Tennis Channel now has the rights to show live coverage from all four Grand Slams, and has significant presence year-round at events including the ATP Masters Series, WTA Tour championship competitions, Davis Cup and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas and the Hyundai Hopman Cup.
By the end of the 2012 U.S. Open on Sept. 9, Tennis Channel will have aired nearly 245 hours of coverage during the two-week event, including 70-plus hours of live coverage and about 30 original hours of U.S. Open Tonight and Breakfast at the Open.
Among its commentators and analysts are a Who's Who of Tennis, including Jim Courier, Bill Macatee, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Justin Gimelstob and Lindsay Davenport.
The cable station said it is currently available in 34 million homes nationwide via nine of the top 10 multi-system operators (MSOs) and Verizon FiOS TV, and has a national footprint via DirecTV and DISH Network.
That reach could be greatly expanded. A recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission mandated that Comcast Corp. add an additional 18 million households to the three million that currently had access to Tennis Channel on the Comcast system. Comcast appealed the decision and, on Aug. 25, was granted a stay by the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which is still in effect.
Robyn Miller has been svp-marketing with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Tennis Channel for more than five years. She previously was svp-marketing for Fine Living Network (a Scripps Network sibling of HGTN, Travel Channel and Food Network), where she met and worked for FLN's founding president, Ken Solomon, now chairman and CEO of Tennis Channel. Before that, Miller spent 15 years at the Walt Disney Co. as a marketing, creative and product strategy executive for the home entertainment division.
Earlier at the 2012 U.S. Open, NYSportsJournalism spoke with Ken Solomon, chairman and CEO for Tennis Channel, about the current and future state of tennis and Tennis Channel. Here, Miller talks to NYSportsJournalism about the challenges and rewards of marketing a multi-media firm devoted 24/7 to the players, events and lifestyle of tennis.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What were some of the key challenges and goals when you joined the Tennis Channel?
Robyn Miller: At the time I joined Tennis Channel, the main challenge was that we had not yet negotiated many significant rights deals. We did not have a lot of product to bring to marketers. Since then, we have signed deals with the French Open, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. And that opened up entirely new opportunities for advertisers and viewers. So now I'm able to market live coverage, original programming such as U.S. Open Tonight and Breakfast at the Open, original content, and the fact that we have access to and air more tournaments with the top-rated men's and women's players than any other network. That is a major change.
NYSJ: What would be your biggest challenge now?
RM: Awareness of the Tennis Channel. We are in 34 million homes. That is a strong base, but that can only go so far in terms of spreading the word and raising awareness. Which is why Comcast is so important to us. My budget is highly restricted. So what I try to do is get out of the Tennis Channel circle to expand awareness about the U.S. Open, about the attributes of Tennis Channel, without spending money. I don't have the money to do major advertising campaigns. I don't have the money to advertise on ESPN or any other cable network.
NYSJ: How do you create marketing and buzz without a big budget?
RM: We look for like-minded partners who will help us. They take our content, and they have the penetration that we need to create awareness. We partner with IndoorDirect, has television monitors in 1,200 fast-food restaurants around the country (such as Wendy's, Denny's, Arby's and KFC). When you go to get a burger, you'll see a promotion that the U.S. Open will be on Tennis Channel. We market outside our circle in ways like that without spending money. We just signed a deal with ClearVision, an airport TV network from Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings [scheduled to debut this fall], so we will have programming in airports nationwide. Throughout the marketing world, we are able to find partners who love our content, who want to showcase the players and who enable us to broaden our reach.
"We look for like-minded partners who will help us. They take our content, and they have the penetration that we need to create awareness."
NYSJ: How does this impact Tennis Channel's position in the world of business?
RM: We have a strong position, which is still growing. Ken Solomon has solid credentials and a strong business background. And the partners we work with are leading companies. If you're asking about whether we get the respect of the business community, a good example is that on Aug. 31, Ken, Chris Considine [president for Wilson Sporting Goods} and others [rang] the opening bell for NASDAQ on court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
NYSJ: Since there are not tournaments to cover 24/7, how important has other programming become to the growth of the Tennis Channel and to the way you present the network to marketers and potential sponsors?
RM: Very important. We are not just a tennis network, we are also a lifestyle network. We are the only sports network where half of our viewers are women. At ESPN, 80% of their viewers are male. The same with hockey, soccer [networks]. The fact that our viewership is split 50-50 attracts a variety of advertisers and provides a great potential of opportunity from our programming, which is directed toward both men and women. We also have the most affluent demographic among sports channels, with a large portion of viewers who have disposable income. That is attractive to a variety of high-end advertisers — Mercedes-Benz, LaCoste, Longines — who are targeting that demographic.
NYSJ: How would you describe that demographic?
RM: As I said, 50-50 between men and women. I'd say the majority is in the 35-54 age range, and a strong demographic of baby boomers or people who have retired and have money to spend. But online that is younger. We have a very robust presence in social media, which tends to be younger. Through our Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube and other outlets, we are reaching younger fans who we then direct to our cable channel. We want to show them that we cover the entire range of tennis and [tennis-related] lifestyles, which should be a strong reason for them to stay with us. We like to think of tennis as a [lifetime] sport, so you have kids playing it and people in their 90s playing it. We marketing to the [older] audience as well as to younger people who are active on Twitter and Facebook.
NYSJ: Are players becoming more responsive to Tennis Channel and making themselves more accessible?
RM: Absolutely. They certainly want to be part of what we are doing. When we started, no one knew who we were. Now, we have a presence at tournaments throughout the year, there is a set on-site with commentators, we have Bill Macatee talking to the players after they win a match. So the players are far more aware of our reach and input. Honestly, we used to struggle to get players to speak with us during a tournament. Now, they are happy to speak with us, and they make time in their schedule to sit down with us.
NYSJ: How important has it been to have on-air personalities such as Jim Courier, Bill Macatee, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Justin Gimelstob and Lindsay Davenport?
RM: Very important on so many levels. They know the game inside and out, so their credibility is higher than anyone else's. Viewers and players know them and know they have been in the game. They can talk about the game from a personal level, talk about situations on and off the court that they experienced and to which current players can relate and understand. Our commentators are well-educated on how to market our message as well as how to market the players. They know all the different venues we have to get the game to fans, not just on-air but Internet, mobile, social media. Our production people are really smart when it comes to using Bill, Tracy, Martina and all of our talent.
NYSJ: Andy Roddick announced his retirement. Is the Tennis Channel a good place to work for former players who want to become commentators?
RM: Absolutely. (U.S. Davis Cup captain) Jim Courier joined us last year for the U.S. Open, and it wasn't hard to get him to expand his role this year. We have a fantastic relationship with him. I think if players who have retired look at Tennis Channel they can see we have a great relationship with all of the former players who are commentators for us.
NYSJ: How important has it been in talking with potential marketing partners and in expanding the role of current partners that Tennis Channel is not just focusing on tournaments but has embraced the lifestyle of tennis?
RM: That has become a major part of what we do and how we work with our partners. If you watched our coverage at Wimbledon, for example, you would have seen a piece on the best driving trips in and around London, the top hotels and places to visit and shop if you are on a budget or if you have some pounds to spend. During the French Open we did a Paris Underground special. They are sponsored by American Express or brought to you by one of our other partners. We have original programming, such as Destination Tennis, where we explore the cities that host WTA and ATP tournaments, which is presented by Orbitz. The sport itself is fantastic. But what we do, with the help of our partners, is weave into our programming all of the lifestyle elements.
NYSJ: How has the fact that four men — Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — have been so dominant in recent years played into Tennis Channel marketing strategies.
RM: We are always interested in the story. For a time, it was about the rivalry between Federer and Nadal. Then Djokovic established his presence at the top, so we talked about the three players and the rivalries among them. Then Andy Murray came in, so it has been about the way these four guys really battle each other. They are all players well-known in the U.S. and around the world, which makes it even more intriguing when you are talking about marketing the Tennis Channel itself or building marketing with our partners or potential partners. The awareness among tennis fans and even people who don't follow tennis on a regular basis is very high, and that is something that marketing partners look for.
"The awareness among tennis fans and even people who don't follow tennis on a regular basis is very high, and that is something that marketing partners look for."
NYSJ: The women's side has been more in flux, although Serena and Venus Williams are well-known in the U.S. How has that affected Tennis Channel's marketing tactics?
RM: The women's side has been a lot more tenuous. Somebody is No. 1, then the next week someone else is No. 1. There have been seven different women winning the last seven Grand Slam titles (prior to the U.S. Open). But when you have Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, they have great stories. They have very high awareness among fans and a demographic that marketers can focus on. So we tell their stories, and tell the stories of the other women who are helping to make tennis so interesting today: Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur, Na Li, Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters was a big story since coming back from having a baby, and then announcing that she would retire after the U.S. Open. She is a good example of someone on who we can put our focus on and off the court, being a Grand Slam winner, a mom, someone who has balanced her private and professional life.
NYSJ: With Tennis Channel's 10th anniversary coming in 2013, what are you looking at as far as marketing and activation?
RM: Ten years is a big deal. We are still a very new and very vibrant network, still growing. The actual anniversary is May 2013, which is right before the French Open (May 26-June 9), so we will probably have a party in Paris, which is not a bad thing. (Laughs.) We are speaking with our partners about involvement in our celebration. We are looking at on-air programming. We are talking with people in the sport. And of course we want to have activation that involves fans of tennis and viewers of Tennis Channel. It will be about celebrating the fact that we started in three million homes and now have more than 30 million homes, and are still growing.
Q&A: Tennis Channel Sees Net Gains, Feels Growing Pains