Niche channels keep popping up left and right. And it was the Golf Channel, which launched Jan. 17, 1995, that started the madness.
The Tennis Channel begins a 19-day preview period Saturday in which it will be available for cable distributors to show to their subscribers if they desire. The channel will officially launch May 15 in about 3 million digital cable homes.
NBA TV, launched in 1999, is starting to make an impact, televising up to seven NBA playoff games -- three this week -- in high definition.
Speed Channel, which went on the air as Speedvision in 1996 and was partnered with Outdoor Life, relaunched last year with an emphasis on NASCAR and now reaches 57.1 million U.S. homes.
The College Sports Network, which offers minor college sports, launched April 7. Scheduled to be launched later this year are BlackbeltTV, the Ice Channel and the Football Network.
The Golf Channel paved the way, supplying a blueprint for others to follow.
"I don't think we could have sold our idea without the success of the Golf Channel," said David Meister, chief executive of the Tennis Channel. "Sponsors would have said, 'Gee, where did you come up with this idea?' "
Initially, the Golf Channel was not successful. It didn't make a profit until its fourth year.
The channel was the brainchild of Joe Gibbs, an Alabama cable TV and wireless technology magnate. He recruited Arnold Palmer as his partner. Gibbs became the president and Palmer the CEO. The Palmer name gave the project credibility and helped lure investors, who provided $80 million toward getting the channel on the air.
Dave Manougian joined the Golf Channel as vice president of advertising sales five months before it went on the air. He was the 14th employee hired and worked his way up the corporate ladder. On Jan. 2, 2002, upon Gibbs' retirement, Manougian became the president.
"Launching a network is not for the faint of heart," Manougian said this week from the Golf Channel offices in Orlando, Fla. "There were certainly some bumps in the road. Some days, things went your way. Other days, nothing went your way."
The Golf Channel made a major mistake when it launched as a stand-alone pay channel. It cost subscribers from $5 to $6 a month and had only 200,000 subscribers at the start. It barely survived.
"At the time, we'd just come into the office, put our heads down and get stuff done," Manougian said. "But since then I've heard stories of some pretty dicey times. It's a testament to Joe that he shouldered the responsibility and kept those things from the rest of us."
Once the Golf Channel was packaged with other sports channels, as it is now, things turned around. It now reaches 53 million homes in the U.S., 4.5 million in Canada and 1 million in Japan. It goes to 1.67 million homes in the Los Angeles market.
The Golf Channel is 92%-owned by cable giant Comcast, with the Tribune Co., which also owns The Times, owning the remaining 8%.
The Golf Channel aims to provide comprehensive coverage of the sport.
The Golf Channel's nightly "Golf Central" anchors a strong lineup, including pre- and postgame shows surrounding PGA tournaments.
And there is plenty of competitive golf. All or parts of 88 tournaments on the LPGA, European, Champions and Nationwide tours will be televised this year, and next year the Golf Channel will become the exclusive home of the Champions Tour.
"I think what helped make us successful is we've always had a keen sense of who we are and who we're not," Manougian said.
Birdies, Bogeys, Pars
Colleen Walker, who has missed the last three LPGA Tour seasons because of a wrist injury, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Walker, 46, whose nine LPGA victories include a major championship at the 1997 du Maurier Classic, is undergoing chemotherapy and hopes to return in 2004.
Hal Sutton announced Wednesday that he is stepping down as a player director on the PGA Tour policy board. Sutton was in his second three-year term.... Sutton's tie for third at the MCI Heritage Classic last weekend was his best finish since winning the 2001 Shell Houston Open, and that event headlines this weekend's play. The tournament has moved from The Woodlands to the Peter Jacobsen-designed Redstone Golf Club.
Casa Colina's 21st Padua Village Golf Classic will be held Monday at the Red Hill Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga. Celebrity guests include George Foreman, Al Michaels, Rick Majerus, Ann Meyers-Drysdale, Casey Wasserman, George Lazenby and Pam Shriver. Proceeds support the operation of the four Padua Village homes in Pomona for adults with disabilities.
Thomas Bonk is on vacation.
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*--* PGA TOUR Shell Houston Open
Where: Redstone Golf Club (7,508 yards, par 72); Humble, Texas.
Purse: $4.5 million. Winner's share: $810,000.
TV: USA (today-Friday, 1-3 p.m.) and Channel 2 (Saturday-Sunday, noon-3 p.m.).
2002 winner: Vijay Singh.
Next week: HP Classic of New Orleans.
*--* LPGA TOUR Chick-fil-A Charity Championship
Where: Eagle's Landing Country Club (6,368 yards, par 72); Stockbridge, Ga.
Purse: $1.35 million. Winner's share: $202,500.
TV: ESPN (Friday, noon-2 p.m.) and ESPN2 (Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.).
2002 winner: Juli Inkster.
Next week: Michelob Light Open at Kingsmill in Williamsburg, Va.
*--* CHAMPIONS TOUR Legends of Golf
Where: Westin Savannah Harbor Resort and Spa (6,627 yards, par 72); Savannah, Ga.
Purse: $2.25 million. Winner's share: TBA ($306,000 in 2002).
TV: ESPN (Friday, 10 a.m.-noon) and Channel 7 (Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-noon).
2002 winner: Doug Tewell.
Next week: Bruno's Memorial Classic in Hoover, Ala.