Potential suitors for the Tennis Channel might want to wait and see what the referees have to say about the cable network’s serve before making any deals.
Speculation is again heating up that the Tennis Channel, owned by several private equity firms including Apollo Partners and Bain Capital, may be on the block. Last week, the New York Post reported that Al Jazeera Media Networks is interested in the network.
People close to the Tennis Channel and Al Jazeera downplayed that story. But if there is some truth to it, Al Jazeera might want to keep its wallet closed until a legal battle the Tennis Channel is engaged in with Comcast Corp. plays out.
The Tennis Channel is waiting for word from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit about the fate of an order from the Federal Communications Commission that could be crucial to the channel’s future. Last year, the FCC said Comcast had discriminated against the Tennis Channel by not making it available to the same number of its subscribers who receive Golf Channel and NBC Sports Network, both of which are owned by the cable giant’s NBCUniversal unit.
Comcast appealed the FCC’s order and a ruling is expected in the coming months. During arguments, it appeared that the court was favoring Comcast, which has alleged that the Tennis Channel is using the agency to try to get out of a contract it doesn’t like.
Currently in 35 million homes, Tennis Channel could get a boost of 20 million more homes by getting carriage on all of Comcast’s systems. That would greatly increase its value.
However, if the court sides with Comcast, then Tennis Channel’s efforts to expand will have been severely hampered.
Whether that will be enough to turn off the deep-pocketed Al Jazeera Media Networks remains to be seen. The company paid $500 million for Current TV, a price tag that most industry observers and analysts thought was exorbitant. Current is being relaunched later this year as Al Jazeera America, an all-news channel it hopes will compete with CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
Al Jazeera already has a presence in sports. It owns the cable channel BeIN Sport, which carries primarily soccer and tennis.
Other companies likely to at least kick the tires of the Tennis Channel include News Corp.'s Fox Sports unit and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN.
There is only one buyer -- NBCUniversal -- that could make Tennis Channel’s distribution problems go away for good.
Stranger things have happened.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.