Bellamy Launches The Ski Channel, But Still Hitting ForehandsPosted on May 11, 2007
By Richard Vach
Tennis Channel founder Steve Bellamy launched The Tennis Channel -- ran The Tennis Channel -- left The Tennis Channel -- and now exactly one year to the day of his departure, has resurfaced with another major network launch -- The Ski Channel.
"After family and tennis, skiing is my favorite thing in the world. I love bombing fall lines and being in an environment where I can push it to the absolute apex," says Bellamy, who nevertheless remains involved in tennis at various levels. "As a day-to-day thing I remain a staunch evangelist for tennis. I had one goal with The Tennis Channel and that was to grow tennis. I reached a point in time where there was a diminishing return on my efforts and investment. The travel was excruciating, hanging out in player lounges no longer did it for me and sitting in industry meetings discussing the same things we had discussed the prior year in the same meeting had become tedious. The Tennis Channel could do fine without me and there were a lot of things in life I still wanted to do, I wanted to start The Ski Channel, I wanted to produce a couple of movies and I wanted to ramp up my other sports businesses. I also wanted to actually play tennis, which for someone who owned three tennis clubs, is married to a pro tennis player, has four kids who are all playing competitive tennis and had a court at home -- I rarely did."
It's a different type of network launch for Bellamy, who started The Tennis Channel on a combination of cash from hocking cars and guitars, maxed-out credit cards and business acumen that Independent Business magazine described as a "one-man tennis tsunami -- a cross between P.T. Barnum, Don King, Bill Gates and Billy Graham."
This time around Bellamy launches with a number of solid advertising partners in pocket, including: Panasonic, Mirage Resorts, Marquis Jets, Fender Guitars, and a long-term contract with Time Warner Cable. It is an impressive line-up compared to the early years of The Tennis Channel, which to be kind could be described as "lean."
"I was searching for anyone who had capital," Bellamy said in 2004 on The Tennis Channel's early years. "Our financial syndicate had nearly collapsed, I was like a scavenger out there. We were a million dollars in debt, we had 23 employees, we had about $29,000 in the bank, our Time-Warner deal was about to expire, all I did 24 hours a day was hustle and try to find money -- I was relentless. There was a 33-day period of time where I barely slept at all and on one of those days literally at 4:30 a.m. one morning I found this private investment bank out of Boston that had just done an XM (satellite) deal. I sent an un-solicited e-mail to the guy who looked most likely to play tennis, and the next day he called me saying, 'I got this stuff, I don't remember talking to you but tell me more,' and that private equity fund held the investment syndicate together and the channel got up about one second before the Time-Warner deal expired, literally 11:59:59, we ended up with tones and color bars. That was how we started."
Beginning in 2008, Bellamy's newest network endeavor will be of a different ilk -- the ever-growing popularity of Video on Demand (VOD). Bellamy says The Ski Channel will feature VOD programming including: entertainment, news, destination travel, real estate, equipment profiles, instruction, reality and magazine shows, as well as professional mountain sport events. Sports covered will include "everything a person can do on a mountain in winter or summer" including skiing, snowboarding, hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, caving and other activities.
We caught up with Bellamy while he was at the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) convention where he and his colleagues were introducing the new cable network to the ski industry.
"We have now met with the majority of presidents and CEOs of all the major U.S. resorts," said Bellamy, "and their message back was basically unanimous. They think it is going to be great for their industry and they are going to do everything in their power to support it." There are roughly 20 mega-resorts currently operating in the U.S., with most of the large resorts located in Colorado, Utah and California.
"The wide variety of subject matter on The Ski Channel would not work well on a linear network. It requires an 'on-demand' platform," Bellamy said. "The Tennis Channel was a perfect fit for linear because of the heavy saturation of live tournaments, and in general most of the consumers liked all the shows, so they could turn it on and be content almost always. Ski Channel consumers are likely to be more diverse: mountain bikers, hikers, skiers, snowboarders, rock climbers, etc. It will be easy to program on VOD but it would have been a Rubik's Cube on linear. Does rock climbing go on Tuesday? How about powder skiing on Saturday morning? What days and times are going to be good for destination travel? You get the picture."
According to Bellamy, the mountain world is an industry with over 30 million enthusiasts, 500 resorts, 60 million annual visits and $10 billion of yearly resort and travel spending. Annual ski visits have been going up nearly every year for the last decade and mountain real estate has become some of the most expensive in the world.
"With the baby boomers retiring and retiring affluent, they are looking for a place to bring their new extended family and hold court a few times a year," Bellamy says. "That phenomenon is going to continue to fuel enormous growth in mountain real estate for the next decade. There are three homes for sale in American right now for $75, $125 and $135 million dollars respectively. I am sure Florida has enjoyed the same real estate boom and this huge cross section of people are making similar investments in Florida. What was a luxury to the past generation is a necessity to the next, and destination real estate is that necessity."
While tennis has apparently lost and skiing has gained a tireless advocate, at least on the national/international level, Bellamy very stays active in California tennis. He is the owner of three tennis clubs and is in the process of saving an eight-court facility in Los Angeles that was scheduled to be downed by the wrecking ball, turning it into a tournament venue to create more opportunities for Southern California youth to play matches.
"I probably spend five hours a day just on tennis," Bellamy says. "The Palisades Tennis Center is my main tennis business. When I left The Tennis Channel I focused on really trying to make it one of the best tennis facilities in the world. The first thing we did was produce an event with the Bryan Brothers, Vince Spadea, Elisabeth Shue, Donna Mills, Melissa Rivers, Jill Craybas, a bunch of other celebrities, we had 400 kids come out. Beach Volleyball world champion Sinjin Smith and Carl Hinkle played the Bryan Brothers in volleyball which was amazing as the bros gave them a very good match. U.S. table tennis stars Diego Schaff and Wei Wang played the bros in table tennis and then the Bryans had a concert. The whole of our community came out and it dominated water cooler conversation in our community for months after."
The event was a charity fund- and racket-raiser for Bellamy's 'Make a Racket Foundation,' which gathers used rackets and donates them to various organizations serving disadvantaged tennis-playing youth. The event at the Palisades Tennis Center required fans to bring at least one used racket to gain entry. The Palisades Tennis Center is also the birthplace of "liveball," the fast-paced program that Bellamy invented a decade ago to compete with tai-bo, yoga, spinning and all the other activities that he says "were niching away at tennis." (See liveball in action at http://palitenniscenter.com/pages/liveball.html)
The entrepreneurial spirit that began The Tennis Channel, and now The Ski Channel, remains evident in Bellamy's long list of business endeavors in addition to his tennis clubs and The Ski Channel. His three organic/vegan restaurants never got off the ground, "stymied by parking problems" as he puts it, but earlier this year he won a municipal bid process and opened the L.A. Golf Academy at the Penmar Golf Course in Santa Monica. He is the CEO of Atonal Sports and Entertainment, which includes a film company that produces "micro-budget documentaries in high definition." He purchased Bouquet Media last year and uses the 6,000 square feet for Atonals' corporate offices. There they have full editing and post-production facilities, including a state of the art recording studio where he keeps his guitar collection that includes one of BB Kings' "Lucille's" autographed by King. The facility is conveniently located across the street from his children's school and his Palisades Tennis Center.
Tennis is often described as the "sport of a lifetime," and Bellamy says his passion is promoting sports that one can participate in at any age, any time.
"Tennis is the anchor activity in my life," Bellamy says. "If you put your kids in tennis, they will be smarter, happier, healthier, will make more money, have a more stable marriage, have more children, will live longer and will add more to society. What other activity can attest to that? It is on fire where I live, as I am sure it is in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida."
The Ski Channel was announced one year to the day that Bellamy left The Tennis Channel, just an odd coincidence according to the man who thought of The Ski Channel even before The Tennis Channel over 10 years ago. The Ski Channel is set to launch on Time Warner cable (Brighthouse in Florida) during the first quarter of 2008, with other cable carriers to be announced in the coming months.