Scratching a Niche A proliferation of single-sport TV networks--such as tennis, skating and martial arts--is coming soon

October 20, 2002

For all the virtues of flag football, it's generally not
considered Must-See TV. If game footage exists, it's most likely
been shot by wives and girlfriends with handheld cameras and is
screened in private over beer and pretzels. That might soon be
changing. A new cable channel devoted exclusively to football is
planning to televise Flag Football Association games, as well as
those from Pop Warner, assorted high school leagues and women's
pro football. Set to launch in fall 2003, the Football Network
(TFN) vows to satisfy the country's 150 million gridiron fans who
go cold turkey for nearly seven months a year. The network has
even retained Pat Summerall as an on-air personality. "This is
designed to provide the total football environment," says Jerry
Solomon, TFN's president and CEO. "We think there's a real
market."

The Football Network is hardly alone. By the end of next year
there could be as many as two dozen networks each dedicated to a
single sport. The Ice Channel (skating), NBA TV, the National
College Sports Network, two martial arts channels and the Tennis
Channel are among those in development. They would join networks
already in operation, such as the Golf Channel and the Speed
Channel (motor sports).

Why this explosion of niche networks, particularly at a time when
ratings for sports programming are declining across the board and
the ad market is softer than John Madden's midsection? The short
answer is technology. The move from analog to digital television
has cleared space for many more networks. Also, TV cameras are
recording most sports events these days, so the new channels need
only pick up satellite feeds from local or regional networks.
"However small the viewership for these channels might be,
sponsors and advertisers will reach the most devoted fans," says
Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports and a media consultant.

As single-sport networks go, the leader in the clubhouse, so to
speak, is the Golf Channel. Amid widespread skepticism, the
network launched in 1995; today it's available to more than 50
million homes and is, by some estimates, a $2 billion property.
Among the new ventures, cable operators and industry analysts
are intrigued by the Tennis Channel, which expects to launch by
year's end. With 40% of its airtime devoted to tournament
play--the balance will be instructional programming, player
profiles and other tennis news--the channel has acquired rights
to 15 pro events. Players such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras
(he'll host an instructional show) are among the investors who,
combined, have ponied up more than $70 million. "Based on member
demand it was an easy call," says Frank Hughes, senior vice
president of programming for the National Cable Television
Cooperative (NCTC), which services 14.5 million subscribers.

Not only does tennis have a broad, affluent fan base (77 million
enthusiasts, according to Simmons data), but because of the
sport's balkanized structure, it also is severely underserved by
television. For instance, on DirectTV in October, tennis is
scheduled to be televised less often than lumberjack
competitions. "Tennis has huge stars from both genders, lots of
events, and outside the four majors, it's grossly
undertelevised," says Steve Bellamy, the network's founder and
president.

The business models for the single-sport networks follow the
same conservative blueprint: pay little or nothing in rights
fees, minimize production costs and devise creative, inexpensive
programming. "We don't need to knock anyone's socks off to be
successful," says Solomon. Even so, can these networks--which
must often pay cable operators launch fees to get on the
systems--survive with .1 and .2 Nielsen ratings? (On ESPN, for
example, one point represents 869,150 households.)

Pilson thinks that the answer lies in a "digital sports tier,"
which will enable operators to package the various channels for
subscribers and charge them for the aggregate. So, in a perverse
way, the upstarts are rooting for each other. "If there are 20
of these channels, there is value," he says. "If there are only
one or two, there isn't much value."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY CHARLIE POWELL REMOTE PATROL Even with ratings as low as .1, specialty channels can succeed because advertisers reach their audiences.

Single-minded
Here are the target launch dates for some of the one-sport
networks that are under development.

SPORTS CHANNEL LAUNCH

Tennis Channel December 2002
National College Sports Network Early 2003
NBA TV February 2003
Blackbelt TV Spring 2003
The Football Network Fall 2003

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)