The fastest growing television network doesn’t boast many notable faces. It also focuses on a sport that isn’t even among the Big Four of MLB, NBA, NFL, and the NHL.
Yet in 2019, Tennis Channel has retained its title as the fastest-growing television network in the United States, according to industry analyst Nielsen. The Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned network even managed to expand on its 2018 success.
Among the key demographic of adults 18-49, Tennis Channel led all of cable with a 67% increase in year-over-year viewership, while the 25 to 54 year-old group grew 44% in the same period, with an annual household increase of 40%, according to a company spokesman. The network also saw increased viewership in 51 of 52 weeks and 13% more unique viewers in 2019 than 2018.
Since formalizing its partnership with Nielsen in January 2017, Tennis Channel has gained more than 17.7 million pay-TV and streaming customers, according to SportsPro Media. Its digital streaming service, Tennis Channel Plus, also has seen subscriptions rise more than 25% and renewals over 51%.
“This 41% increase in multichannel video programming distributors and virtual multichannel video programming distributors during the past two years goes against the grain of a media landscape with many programmers fighting to combat subscriber loss,’ Nielsen said in its report.
Tennis Channel Chief Executive Officer Ken Solomon, who joined the company in 2005 as CEO and Chairman, said the booming ratings are anything but an overnight success, and can be attributed to a couple factors.
“I was listening to some post-debate analysis of the last debate, and they said, ‘well, what do you think makes this candidate or a candidate successful in these?’” Solomon said. “And one is when they do a good job of giving the message – and the message is the same message they started with and it still works.”
Tennis Channel also sought to showcase and expand its diverse programming in 2019 by adding amateur tournaments such as the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships and the Next Generation ATP Finals. Based in Santa Monica, Calif., the network also unveiled a 24-hour control room in Lake Nona, Fla., to help expand its TV coverage.
Bringing the new events into the mix helped attract a younger fanbase to Tennis Channel, Solomon said. At the 2019 Laver Cup – which is owned by Roger Federer and Tony Godsick’s Team8 sports agency – in Geneva, viewership was up 121% year-over-year from the 2018 tournament in Chicago. Compared to the inaugural 2017 event in Prague, it was up 115% – with post-match coverage seeing a 76% surge vs. 2018.
“The biggest growth – adults 18 to 49-years old – is a result of a tremendous amount of focus and work on developing great social applications across all the major social media platforms,” Solomon said. “That makes a difference because if people we’re getting on that level are young adults, we have a chance to transport them over to the network. Then if we transport them over to the TV network, we have a tremendous chance to get them to say, ‘hey, you can also get enjoyment in these other ways.”
Centering other content around tennis’s stars and their journeys have contributed to Tennis Channel’s growth, Solomon said. In April 2019, Tennis Channel released its first-ever full length feature film, Strokes of Genius. Based on the 2009 novel, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever by Jon Wertheim, the movie tells the story of the 2008 Wimbledon Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Airing on Tennis Channel and iTunes, Strokes of Genius earned the former two Sports Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Long Sports Documentary and the Outstanding Musical Direction categories, respectively.
Like its competitors, Tennis Channel’s embrace of the digital sphere has also helped grow an audience. In 2019 alone, Tennis.com – which is owned by the network – saw a record 4.7 million visitors across tennis’s four major championships: the Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon.
Along with Tennis.com’s increased traffic, the Tennis Channel Everywhere app saw a 37% uptick in app downloads. By the end of 2019, there were 275,000 total downloads – a record for the company.
App downloads weren’t the only area where Tennis Channel saw double-digit digital growth. It also finished 2019 with 532 million social media impressions across its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds, a 28% bump year-over-year.
Last year also saw Tennis Channel begin tapping into podcasts with the creation of the Tennis Channel Podcast Network, which debuted 12 series featuring everyone from tennis experts Ben Rothenberg and Steve Weissman to professional players Irina Falconi and Noah Rubin.
“It’s a combination of original tennis podcasts as well as third party tennis podcasts where we’ve said, ‘Hey, if you’ve got a voice in tennis, we’re happy to make it part of the middle so that people can find it,’” Solomon said.
Solomon is also targeting legalized gambling as another avenue for Tennis Channel to sustain its industry-leading run. During the 2019 US Open, it worked with DraftKings on the integration of the sports betting provider’s fantasy and real-time betting games, respectively. Regardless of the revenue potential surrounding sports betting, Solomon views it as yet another unique way for Tennis Channel to integrate itself into the lives of more people.
“Tennis is extraordinarily friendly to people who want to engage through what I would call amateur mobile betting,” Solomon said. “It’s always been there… and in-game and in-match prop-type bets, which are fun, are less about the overall results of the match and much more about the contest and just coming up with something fun between friends.”
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Just days into the 2020 Australian Open, Solomon wants to make sure that Tennis Channel remains the go-to for tennis news, from promoting understanding of the sport or being the first to report on noteworthy tennis personalities.
Solomon knows that Tennis Channel’s growth relative to its competitors will be difficult to maintain, but 2020 should see an increased focus by the network on its podcast and social media platforms.
“The answer to the question [of how to maintain success] are all much all the things we always set out to do, which is: to most fully bring [tennis] to fans in a way that educates, removes barriers, makes it more fun, gives them as much latitude to see all the different players, elements, tournaments,” added Solomon. “All the things they could never see before we existed.”