Tennis Channel to sell subscription package directly to consumers

The Tennis Channel introduced a digital subscription service that lets U.S. customers watch expanded French Open coverage. Above, Andy Murray of Britain serves during a May 23 practice session in Paris.
(Dan Istitene / Getty Images)

The Tennis Channel is launching a digital subscription service that puts a new spin on the established business model for TV sports programming.

Beginning Sunday, the sports network will begin selling a programming package directly to consumers. The new product veers from the established order of the pay-television industry.

Called Tennis Channel Plus, the programming service costs tennis fans $59.99 for a one-year subscription or $9.99 for a one-day pass.

“Tennis Channel Plus is not meant to replace the linear Tennis Channel. Instead it is a completely complementary service,” Adam Ware, head of digital media for the Tennis Channel, said in an interview.


Tennis Channel executives had been trying to figure out how to exploit the hundreds of hours of tennis action that viewers at home never see -- mostly lower-profile matches -- because there is not enough room on the company’s lone TV channel.

At the same time, viewers increasingly are watching programming on mobile devices -- smartphones and tablets. And they are watching more than just short video clips.

“More people are consuming long-form programming on their mobile devices,” Ware said. “And live sports has been driving the increase in long-form viewing. Live sports is the perfect vehicle -- it is the most valuable content out there.”

The Tennis Channel hopes to tap into that growing market while also providing the most dedicated tennis fans with additional hours of live tournament coverage, including more obscure matches that are played on outer courts.

The latest digital offering from the Santa Monica television network launches Sunday to coincide with the start of the French Open tennis tournament.

Several sports leagues, including Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Assn., similarly offer digital packages directly to fans who want to watch the games of teams that are not broadcast in their markets.

Earlier this year, the WWE wrestling organization offered its own over-the-top subscription service directly to consumers. That subscription was priced at $9.99 a month. The WWE bet that its loyal fans would be willing to pay for more content than was offered on TV.

Until now, most cable television networks have not sold programming packages directly to consumers.

Networks did not want to jeopardize their lucrative relationships with pay-TV operators. If consumers could buy channels directly from ESPN, they might cancel their subscriptions to DirecTV, Time Warner Cable or other pay-TV providers.

That would put a strain on the economics of television.

So the major sports networks have taken a different route, partnering with the pay-TV operators.

Consumers must demonstrate that they already subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service. Then they are able to download an application that allows them to stream sports content from ESPN or NBC Sports on their tablets and smartphones. Typically, there is no additional charge for pay-TV subscribers to stream the content on their computers or digital devices.

Because the independent Tennis Channel is not affiliated with a major media company -- which garner billions of dollars a year by selling bundles of channels to pay-TV operators -- it doesn’t have as much to lose.

However, to keep its pay-TV partners such as DirecTV happy, the company is giving them a cut of the profit generated by Tennis Channel Plus, Ware said.

“We want to be part of the television ecosystem,” said Ware, a veteran television executive.

But the company also wanted to experiment with other models.

“Consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to buy content in a lot of ways,” he said.

The Tennis Channel has a second digital offering similar to those offered by ESPN and the Golf Channel.

A year ago, it launched a digital application that enables customers of satellite services DirecTV and Dish Network and several cable TV providers, including Cox Communications, to stream Tennis Channel action on their tablets and smartphones.

That application -- called Tennis Channel Everywhere and available on Android and iOS devices -- is offered at no additional charge to customers of certain pay-TV operators. (Customers of Time Warner Cable and Comcast do not have access to Tennis Channel Everywhere.)

“What we are doing is delivering a traditional TV package and, at the same time, serving the super fans with an a la carte package,” Ware said.

“We are trying to create a hybrid model,” he said.

In addition to live coverage of matches at the French Open and other tournaments, including the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, subscribers could watch classic matches, including rivalries between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

However, not all tennis matches will be available through the new service.

Tennis Channel has U.S. digital rights for the French Open but lacks digital rights for the three other Grand Slam tennis tournaments -- Wimbledon, the U.S. Open in New York and the Australian Open.

In addition, ESPN has the rights to the final rounds of the French Open, so those matches would not be available through Tennis Channel Plus.