Friday, October 15, 2010

PoolSynergy: Pool Channel Anyone?

Twenty years ago, a cable TV entrepreneur named Joseph E. Gibbs began to pursue his vision of launching a 24-hour network channel dedicated solely to the game of golf. He teamed up with golf legend Arnold Palmer and a few years later, The Golf Channel was launched.

Today, Golf Channel continues to thrive... carried on numerous cable and satellite networks around the world. In subsequent years, other single-sport niche channels such as Tennis Channel and Speed joined the fray and seem to be doing OK as well. For this month's PoolSynergy post, I pose the question: "Would it make sense to create a cable/satellite channel dedicated to various billiards sports now or at some point in the future?"

Before I get started, I feel the need to give a disclaimer on this subject because I don't consider myself an authority by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not a cable exec, never have been, and never will be (unless someone wants to commission me to pursue this project). As such, you'll find far more questions than answers in this post. My only hope is that I'm able to stir the creative juices of someone in a position to nudge the idea along and make it a reality someday... or maybe someone who knows someone who can do that... or whatever.

Expanding on the previous paragraph, I'll further confess that I haven't been watching the business of billiards closely. I get a sense that it's struggling a bit as a whole (or at least I'm hearing that perception from others). I've heard about various problems with pro tournaments and tours and that Johnny Archer recently championed a new organization, the Association of Billiard Professionals, to address some of these issues. I've also noticed fewer and fewer billiards matches available on TV and have heard talk about contract(s) with ESPN either being lost or perhaps hanging by a thread.

So with all these problems or supposed problems, why do I think there might be a business case for a Billiards Channel? Good question. I freely admit that I'm applying more of a seat-of-the-pants or finger-in-the-wind feel for it, but I sense that a compelling case could be made. Billiards currently gets buried in the vast wilderness of ESPN, and historic matches are buried even further in the obscure ESPN Classic channel that I don't even receive (even though I get hundreds of channels and certainly don't have the cheapest package DirecTV offers... unfortunately, ESPN Classic is only offered on their most expensive 'everything' package - BOO, HISS!).

I believe a dedicated channel would go a long way towards giving the sport the coverage it deserves. I'm aware that there are some sources streaming on the Internet, and that's better than nothing... but really, I want to watch billiards on a big screen from a comfy couch.

Of course, any potential investor would want more than just my hunch to go on. Gibbs commissioned a Gallup Poll as part of his groundwork before diving too deeply into the Golf Channel, and I would expect anyone pursuing a Billiards Channel to do similar due diligence.

Again, not speaking as an authority, I see some basic needs that would have to be met to successfully sustain a niche network channel. First of all, is there an audience? I think so. There are certainly millions of billiards players out there and it's safe to say a good percentage of those players would be attracted to billiards-specific programming on a dedicated channel. It's more difficult to guess how many non-players would be attracted, but I'm sure there would be some. In this part of the analysis, it would be good to compare the number of active players to other sports already served by dedicated channels - are there as many billiards players as, say, tennis players? I think so. Golfers? Not sure, but possibly.

Is there enough content available to keep a channel rolling 24/7? Personally, I think this one is a resounding "yes." There are matches going on at various levels all the time worldwide - pro matches as well as certain amateur events would be fair game. Slices of the schedule could be dedicated to lesser-known billiard sports such as one pocket or three cushion... or even new ones like bonus ball. There's plenty of opportunity for regular shows (weekly or monthly, for example) focusing on various topics like technique, equipment, rules, etc. Shows like this, if done properly, could really help drive interest in the sport... which in turn would increase interest in the channel... which in turn, well, you get the picture (I hope). Additionally, there is a ton of historical footage available from various sources. Folks like Accu-Stats and TAR could certainly pitch their hats into the ring, offering up regular content supported by sponsors rather than (or in addition to) their current pay-per-view models. And yes, there can even be some trick shot coverage sprinkled in here and there (exhibitions as well as instruction).

Is billiards an interesting enough subject to support a 24/7 channel? For this one, I would draw a comparison to other niche sports channels. I like golf and have dabbled in it. I enjoy tennis and was on the high school tennis team. I've watched both of those sports on TV at one time or another. I personally think billiards is infinitely more interesting to watch than either golf or tennis. I can watch billiards for hours... I personally can't do that with golf or tennis. Am I the only one that feels this way? I doubt it. There once was a Fishing Channel, for crying out loud (I think it's morphed into a more generic Outdoors Channel). Is someone out there going to tell me it's more interesting watching a couple dudes sitting in a boat fishing than a couple of top competitors dueling it out on felt? Seriously?

Would there be enough sponsor support? I don't see this being a problem assuming the audience is there. There are several potential sponsors in the industry like equipment manufacturers and vendors, leagues, schools and so on but we need to keep in mind that the sponsors certainly don't all have to be in the industry. Pool is played (and watched) by human beings. Human beings consume food and beverages, watch movies, go on vacations, take medications, etc, etc, etc. In other words, most of the stuff advertised on other channels would apply to the people watching the billiards channel as well.

What type of infrastructure would have to be put in place? I'm not 100% sure on this one, to be honest. Again, drawing a comparison with the other niche sports channels, I think it's fair to say that it wouldn't be more complex than them. Hopefully it could be bootstrapped on a reasonable budget in the early going. I bet there's an opportunity out there to collaborate with an existing entity that already has something in place for another purpose (perhaps timeshare with another niche channel, or piggyback with a larger general purpose sports/news company). Logistics-wise, I don't think decent quality coverage of a pool match would be nearly as complicated as most other sports... it's not like you need twenty camera crews scattered all over a golf course or anything... all you really need to cover the basics is stationary cameras (unmanned, even) covering a few angles on the table and some decent lighting.

There are certainly other hurdles that would need to be cleared, but I think getting a handle on the audience, content, sponsors, and infrastructure are the biggest priorities. So who's up for it? Anyone?

Be sure to check out the other October PoolSynergy postings.

7 comments:

  1. hi gary. not so sure about a pool/billiards channel. at this point it simply isn't a good money maker. might work in asia though.

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  2. Would love to see a billiards channel. I also do not get espn classic and am left with the very limited stuff on espn. Would love to see some 14.1 tournaments etc. Getting tired of only seeing 9-ball on tv. I think accu-stats should join forces with someone to get something going. They already have lots of creative things going on with their streaming....

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  3. Gary, when you launch "The Billiard Channel" let me know. I'll be the first person to sign up for a subscription!

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  4. Most probably don't remember but there was a group from Canada that tried to launch a Billiards Channel. As with most things in billiards the money never materialized.

    Also probably most don't know that BCN, Billiard Club Network is supposed to be a sort of billiard channel for pool rooms. The idea was that pool rooms would get a digest style show sent to them weekly if they subscribed. No takers.

    One thing about pool people is that they in general don't want to watch pool. I have been in the pool room when the IPT's big events were on and the players actually requested that some other sport be broadcast.

    Personally I feel that a Billiard Channel could be a good thing. I think it's certainly no worse than a lot of the niche channels out there. I think that Accu-Stats alone has enough content for years of programming.

    I don't know the costs of running such a franchise. I have to think that it's a lot less now than 20 years ago.

    Maybe it's a good idea to have such a thing on the web to start with. How about a 24/7 streaming channel on TVU or something like that?

    I happen to feel that if the billiard industry as a whole were to chip in for the seed money then this thing could get some legs.

    But the likelihood of that happening are as remote as a listing in the TV Guide for a billiard channel.

    Very good idea though and one which should be looked at seriously again.

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  5. Pool is different from golf and tennis in that the best players make it look so easy that it becomes uninteresting to watch except for diehards. I like to watch, because like you I can appreciate how hard what the players are doing. But many folks, even the bulk of pool players, don't seem to be interested.

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  6. What does a professional pool player and a medium pizza have in common ? neither can feed a family of 4 ! this is true through the industry as a whole, unfortunately we all love one of the least lucrative sports. HELL, when ESPN runs chearleading more frequently than billiards that should tell ya something.I myself have thought that a channel devoted to billiards would be a great opportunity for the right investor.Now lets be realistic, ESPN has ran many different types of billiards in the past, ie...vintage,US open,trick shots, ect, none of these were profitable enough to keep espn intrested in keeping billiards on.WHY? is it a lack of an audiance, lack of advertising, and why does billiards have such a bad image?

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  7. Anon - I wish I knew the answers to those questions. I'd have a shot at making a lot of $$. Heck, for the love of the sport, I'd be happy if ANYONE knew the answer to those questions. I suspect it's a combination of all of the about (and more). Like golf, only the people who play (or tried to play) the sport can appreciate how difficult it is. To the casual observer watching a pro, pool and golf both look deceptively easy. For the most part, I'm guessing only people truly interested in either in and having a reasonable knowledge of either of those sports would be willing/able to watch the sport for any extended period of time. I've dabbled at golf, have clubs, etc, but really can't watch golf on TV for very long before wandering off to something else. On the other hand, I can easily watch pool for hours on end.

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