Tennis Channel May Net NCTC Distribution Deal

The Tennis Channel may soon be playing doubles with the cable co-op.

The fledgling sports service has signed a letter of intent with the National Cable Television Cooperative that would give it access to the group's member systems through 2011.

"We're looking at a long-term deal, but we're still working on the final details," said NCTC senior vice president of programming Frank Hughes.

Tennis Channel chairman and CEO David Meister was optimistic about the potential deal, "We have agreed materially on the business terms. We hope to close within a couple of weeks."

Should the parties finalize the nine-year pact, it would mark the second major affiliation deal for Tennis, now slated to launch sometime in the fourth quarter.

Last month, Tennis inked a 15-year carriage contract with Time Warner Cable that will ultimately give it carriage on all of the MSO's systems, reaching 12.8 million subscribers. Tennis will be largely distributed on the MSO's newly created, à la carte digital sports tier.

Tennis expects the NCTC deal to close by the end of July, a time frame that would enable executives to serve up their pitch before co-op members, who will convene in Orlando from July 28 to July 31 at the group's annual meeting. NCTC affords purchasing efficiencies for a cross-section of cable operators reaching some 14.5 million subscribers nationwide.

"That would give us a chance to present and meet with NCTC members in person," said Meister, noting that the LOI terms do not ensure carriage. "The co-op can't obligate its members."

To that end, Comedy Central's affiliation team, retained by Tennis to work at the system level, would approach co-op members about when they could add the service.

"Like any deal of this kind, we have surveyed our membership, and there is considerable interest in The Tennis Channel," said Hughes. "This is fresh programming for a sport that has a wide appeal. Tennis is not just popular on the coasts."

Neither party would discuss financial terms. But sources indicated that Tennis has been seeking license fees of "pennies per month."

Meister anticipates that Tennis will ink affiliation pacts with two or three other MSOs by summer's end. He said that carriers have embraced the channel's programming concept that will mix tournament action with tennis news and behind-the-scenes looks at the sport's performers, as well as its economics.

"We're presenting something fresh at a reasonable price. Our business plan helps keeps affiliates' sports costs in line," he said.