Tuned in to Tennis

By Steve Flink

As a youngster, Tennis Channel chairman and CEO Ken Solomon worked as a ball boy at the men’s pro tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., chasing down the errant serves and forehands of many of the top pros in the sport. But the one player whose matches the 12-year-old Solomon most enjoyed working was Jimmy Connors, a champion he admired for his talent, grit and work ethic. At this year’s US Open, with Solomon now at the helm of the success story that is Tennis Channel, Connors will be working for that ball boy who once idolized him, as the five-time US Open champion makes his debut as a Tennis Channel commentator.

“Jimmy was a champion who never gave up and never let you down,” Solomon says. “He is a singular icon, synonymous with the US Open itself and with winning tennis. His perspective, personality and analysis of the game are unique attributes that haven’t been enjoyed by U.S. audiences, so for me to actually have some part in making this happen is an enormous thrill. Who could have dreamed 30 years ago that my hero, someone I was a ball boy for, would be involved in a tennis capacity with me again decades later, on the biggest stage in American tennis?”

It may well be that Solomon sees some of himself in Connors. He, too, has made a habit out of winning, moving seamlessly from one successful venture to another. Over the years, Solomon has served at the highest levels at Universal Television, DreamWorks Television, News Corp. and Scripps. He founded Fine Living Network, and was president of Universal Studios Television. Currently, this multifaceted fellow is chairman of Ovation T.V. Solomon, 46, has been a central figure in the television industry for a long while.

That’s why it was such good news for the sport of tennis when the former ball boy stepped into the role of chairman and CEO of Tennis Channel in 2005. His is a position that requires supreme people skills and authentic business acumen, and Solomon has both those attributes and then some. Asked why he wanted to take on the leadership role at Tennis Channel, Solomon responds, “Once I got under the fingernails of what this opportunity was, I realized that tennis—certainly as it pertains to television—had fallen in some ways to an unfortunate place that was out of balance with the sport’s real importance and value. Tennis is not just a game, it’s a lifestyle. I thought through Tennis Channel we could have immense positive consequences on the people who enjoy the sport.”

It seems to be working. Just as tennis has grown in popularity as a sport throughout the last few years, Tennis Channel’s numbers are likewise surging. At the end of 2005, Tennis Channel had 5 million subscribing households. That number jumped to 10 million by the end of 2006, to 20 million a year later, and the current number of subscribers is approximately 26 million.

Solomon, who was a magician in his youth and early adulthood, is not creating these numbers with any sleight of hand, but rather with a thoughtful, creative approach to presenting the sport in an appealing and exciting format to an ever-widening audience. He has displayed an indefatigable spirit in his post at Tennis Channel, and his skills and determination have enabled him to strike broadcast deals during his tenure with all four Grand Slam events, which is no mean feat. Donald Dell, one of the game’s prime contributors for decades and a 2009 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, has negotiated many of those deals for Solomon.

As Dell asserts, “Two things are really distinctive about Ken. One is his energy—he is absolutely tireless—and the second is his optimism and enthusiasm, which is very contagious. He bubbles with talent but underneath that bubble is a very smart guy. Most importantly, Ken understands the business of cable television and sports as well as anybody in the industry. By selling Tennis Channel as a lifestyle network, he has broadened the base of its audience tremendously.”

Solomon’s sunny outlook also has served him well in other endeavors, including a role as a prominent fundraiser for Barack Obama during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Does he hope to widen the president’s interest in tennis? “We have had that discussion,” Solomon says. “When I said we can make tennis the national sport in this country, he had a one-word answer for me: ‘Hoops.’ But I think there is an opportunity potentially. The fact that his children play tennis and his wife, Michelle, is partial to it is a good thing. President Obama recognizes that when you have a sport like tennis that is enjoyed by so many millions of people, by its very nature that is very important. So I am hopeful.”

Whether or not Solomon is successful at lobbying the President, the skill and diplomacy he has displayed in giving Tennis Channel a substantial presence at all four Grand Slam events has surely boosted the popularity of the sport. As Solomon proudly points out: “Today we have all four majors. We have the Davis Cup exclusively. We have the Top 60 tournaments in the world broadcast on our air, and the most important thing about that is that it gives tennis fans the thing that they had always lacked more than anything else, which is knowing where the tennis is and how to find it. It’s as basic as that.”

Some 55 million homes are expected to be tuned into Tennis Channel’s coverage of the US Open this year, which will include live coverage from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on most days, and then a four-hour U.S. Open Tonight show starting at 11 p.m. each evening. U.S. Open This Morning airs from 6 to 10 a.m. On the last three days, Tennis Channel will have encores of the singles semifinals and finals for the men and women (those matches will be shown live on CBS). Asked if airing the US Open this year along with ESPN and CBS is particularly significant since Tennis Channel is American-based, Solomon says, “As any good parent will say, we love all of our children equally. But the US Open and Olympus US Open Series are, for this network, unquestionably the crown jewel.”

Solomon takes particular pride in the fact that his network will carry live matches from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. over Labor Day weekend on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 5 and 6. “All over the country, when people are barbecuing and watching tennis, they will only be able to see live matches on those nights on Tennis Channel,” he says. “That is something I never thought we would be able to say.”

So how does Solomon envision Tennis Channel a decade from now? “I think and hope that what Tennis Channel will be in the future is really a community where all of the stakeholders in the game—be it major right’s holders, players, fans and the people who participate in tennis on a lifestyle basis—all come to find their community,” he says. “I see Tennis Channel helping to power a very robust international tennis community, as I see the game continuing to grow stronger and stronger.”
 
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