Tennis Channel International Responds to Pandemic With Live Programming
The OTT service has streamed more than 1,000 matches since its launch in May
When Tennis Channel International was launched in Germany last May, the OTT service didn’t intend to broadcast live tennis programming. But COVID-19 and its impact on the tennis world opened up opportunities that were unforeseen only months earlier.
“When we launched,” says Tennis Channel SVP, international, Andy Reif, “we thought live rights would not be available for two or three years, and our whole strategy was going to be classic matches and original features. But, when COVID happened and the tours were disrupted, there were exhibitions popping up, and Tennis Channel started discussions with those exhibitions.”
The impact has been large. The service has shown more than 1,000 live matches and was the official streaming partner of the ATP 500 Hamburg European Open and even the DTB German Tennis Championships (which never had a media partner before) in December.
“Those championships did incredibly well and even had stronger viewership in Germany than the Hamburg Open, which had global players,” says Reif. “It showed there was an opportunity to be a major focus with live tennis and original programming.”
The idea behind Tennis Channel International, he notes, was to bring some cohesion to a sport that has different tours, four independently run Grand Slams, and rights deals that can sometimes make it hard for fans to find the information they want.
“The central concept was to be the meeting place for tennis fans, a place to grow and tell the story of tennis in multiple ways,” says Reif. “The Tennis Channel is that place here in the U.S., but the rest of the world does not have that central meeting place for tennis.”
Figuring out how to launch an OTT service on a global basis is a challenge for any organization, and Reif and the team decided to focus their efforts on countries that have strong tennis federations.
“We looked to see where tennis is popular and where there are a lot of players who play at least one time a month. Those countries tend to have strong tennis federations,” he explains. “We also wanted to launch where SVOD services are popular, people are used to paying for streaming, and there is an infrastructure to support it.”
Germany, whose Deutscher Tennis Bund (DTB) has 1.4 million members, was the initial focus, and a partnership was formed. A subscription service priced at approximately $2.75 per month was launched with Sportradar, which oversees the app.
With the pay service up and running, Reif says, attention turned to the launch of a free ad-supported streaming-TV service via Samsung, with technology partner Amagi powering the look and feel of the service.
“We use the FAST channel to build awareness for TCI, and then fans can migrate over to the subscription service,” says Reif. “It was launched on Samsung TV Plus in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and also in the UK in advance of launching the app this year.”
FAST gives people a lean-back experience, and Reif notes that the 24/7 channel is fully programmed with the tennis fan in mind, with weekly and monthly themes.
“Amagi allows us to put in dynamic graphics so it looks like a channel and not just a playlist,” he says.
Along with 24/7 content, fans will also find hundreds of hours of VOD content. The production team dove into thousands of hours of content created for Tennis Channel to find the content that would best appeal to a global audience.
“Now, when I go to our service,” says Reif, “there is thousands of hours of stuff to watch, which is incredible to me.”
And something truly original is MatchCast, a live-scoring application that allows fans to follow the match live from nearly any device.
“Something like that has never existed for tennis fans,” Reif points out. “Sportradar is our technology partner for that, allowing fans to watch every match in the world live and follow how a point and a match play out, as well as stats and data.”
MatchCast is still in beta test, but Reif expects it to be a hit for fans who want to be able to follow any match at any tournament and at any time. “Hard-core fans will want to follow different matches even if they can’t watch it.”
Obtaining original content from around the world is important, and a team of preditors (people who both produce and edit content) travel with the tour and are focused on tennis 365 days a year.
“They have access to footage and interviews to tell the story of tennis, and, at the end of the day, that is the goal,” he says. “We have features on players, human-interest stories, and access to anything that was created for the linear channel.”
Speaking of the linear channel, Tennis Channel is moving to a new production facility in Los Angeles, where it will have multiple sets and sound stages that could play a big role moving forward.
“We will be able to create global and also local content as we can keep the lights and the cameras on and shoot German or French versions of shows,” notes Reif. “As we grow, we will see more opportunities to take a global service and localize it. It will become more impressive for the tennis fan.”
Plans for this year include a launch in both the UK and Australia, keeping the service on a positive trajectory despite tumultuous times.
“We’re happy with how much we have accomplished in a crazy time as we launched a subscription service, a 24/7 FAST channel in Germany and then the UK,” Reif says. “And what has been rewarding is the response we’ve gotten as we struck a nerve with German tennis fans with content they otherwise would not have seen. We will continue to evolve and grow a mix of global and local stories.”