Ski Channel CEO Steve Bellamy appeared on the national late-night “Tavis Smiley” show on PBS this past Monday, and now the interview has been transcribed for those who missed the exciting interview.
Bellamy spoke with Tavis about the trials and tribulations of launching two television networks, why he thought there was a need for a Ski Channel, and chatted about “The Story.”
Read on for the full interview, or watch the video on the Tavis Smiley website.
Tavis Smiley Transcript:
Tavis: Steve Bellamy is a successful media entrepreneur who founded the Tennis Channel back in 2003 and now serves as the chairman and CEO of the two-year-old Ski Channel. The network just announced a film series about skiing and other outdoor sports. The first film is called “The Story,” which includes Olympic heroes like Bode Miller and Lindsay Vaughn. Here now, some scenes from “The Story.”
Tavis: So three times in that package I found myself saying, “Don’t try this at home.” That stuff looks interesting, but extreme. What is it about us that’s driving Americans with regard to outdoor sports and extreme sports? I know they’re two different things, but outdoor sports, extreme sports are all the boom these days.
Steve Bellamy: Outdoor sports is really interesting, and I’ve gotten to know the culture a lot more in the last few years. I know a lot of pro athletes, basketball players, baseball players, football players. They love their sport when they’re gestating. When they become professional, I think the love for the sport kind of gets bifurcated and they like making money, they like the trappings and then they don’t play the sport nearly as much in the off season.
Skiers and snowboarders and these action – more mountain sport-oriented people – they just love the sport. They go and live on a mountain and wash dishes to be able to do what they do. The love grows as they become 30, 40, 50 and they just keep doing it. It’s a real passion-driven segment.
Tavis: What made you think or believe that a ski channel – I’m always amazed by these what I call niche channels, that somebody like you thinks that there are enough people interested in watching the same kind of stuff all day long.
Obviously, you know what you’re doing because you’ve done it twice now, but what made you think a ski channel would work?
Bellamy: It’s funny; I came at it from the exact opposite end. When the Golf Channel came out of the ground it just rose, meteoric stature, really quickly. At one point in time it was worth over $2 billion.
I was scratching my head, going, “When is somebody going to start a tennis channel? When is somebody going to start a ski channel?” So I was more sprinting, going, “Holy cow, I’d better get to market first or this is never going to happen.”
Basically the same amount of people play tennis as ski and play golf – what I would call the three lifetime sports – and the numbers of participants in those sports are actually bigger than most of baseball, basketball and football that are more spectator sports.
So I figure that when you have that nucleus of people who are so passionate about it that they buy a home in a mountain or they join a tennis club and they live there on the weekends and after school all day, that those people would be watching and it would be enough to sustain a business.
Tavis: So here’s a crazy question I’ll probably regret asking, because I’ve known Steve for years, so I’m sure this is going to come back to haunt me from you and all my friends who do ski.
Bellamy: I have all the pictures (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, I know you do. (Laughter) Steve and I went to school together at Indiana University – go, Hoosiers. Another issue there. I have never skied before, so I do not get – I think I get, I can see the rush that people get when they’re coming down this hill when they do it successfully – but the danger present in that sport has not convinced me yet it’s something I ought to try. So help me understand what it is about coming down that mountain that so turns people on.
Bellamy: One thing about skiing is you can really control the danger. You can decide how far you want to push it. Most of the people getting hurt, they’re living on the edge, not living in the middle.
There is nothing in the world like the rush of going down a mountain and harnessing all that energy and all that gravity and using it for your own pleasure. There’s just nothing like it. It’s very similar to surfing. I don’t surf, but it’s very similar to surfing. There’s just nothing like it. It’s amazing. You have to try it.
Tavis: So what were the hurdles that you had to get through, to your point earlier, about trying to rush to market? What does one do? Take me through the process and top line for me what you have to do to get a TV network like the Tennis Channel, like the Ski Channel. You get this idea – how do you get it on the air? How do you get it started?
Bellamy: Candidly, one was extremely challenging and one was extremely easy. The Ski Channel was incredibly easy to get off the ground. The Tennis Channel, that was a whole ‘nother deal.
I was a tennis pro in Los Angeles, very unhappy with the amount of tennis on television. Baseball, basketball and football demand these giant rights fees from the networks and in return the networks hurt the little niche sports.
So I was fighting for tennis, I was an evangelist for tennis, and it was literally just passion that kept pushing and pushing, and the amount of times that the word “no” was said to me was beyond logic. I think in life I’ve always been the guy who, if popular opinion is one thing, if common sense is one thing, I’ll go the other way.
I just kept pushing and pushing for seven years. I had to raise tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars right after 9/11 when there was not a lot of money out there. But it starts with raising a lot of capital, having a great concept and getting the cable community and the satellite community to buy into it, which is another very challenging part of the equation.
Tavis: How difficult is that these days – I know this is inside baseball, but all of us who are watching right now, I know we’ve got, like, two million choices now, and so you come along with these ideas to give us a couple more choices. The cable industry – how does that work?
Bellamy: Well, the whole thing is going through such a metamorphing change right now because the Internet is basically television, and every day it becomes closer to it. So the amount of choices is going to infinity really quickly. I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen in two or three years.
I think you’re going to see the middle networks go away, you’re going to see a lot of big networks get sturdier and sturdier, and the little teeny networks that can be nichy, they’ll probably survive because they don’t need a big audience to survive.
Tavis: I assume that to get, to your point, a niche network off the ground like the Ski Channel, like the Tennis Channel, you really do need the buy-in of the stars those sports.
Bellamy: For sure.
Tavis: How critical is that and how successful were you at getting that?
Bellamy: That is really one of the reasons that the Tennis Channel worked, was because every big star said, “Sure, I’ll do whatever you need to do to help make this work.” Two of my earliest investors were Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Tavis: They invested in the project?
Bellamy: Yeah, yeah.
Bellamy: When you have those two guys, who were the apex of the sport saying, “I’m in,” that helps out a lot. The tennis world was amazing. It’s funny; the business world was not so amazing. The amount of meetings I sat in where the tennis world said no, we’re not interested, was incredible. The athletes all unilaterally said, “I’m down. Whatever you need me for, you got it.”
Tavis: What’s your sense, Steve, of whether or not the environment that we’re in now, you referenced this earlier, is good or bad for entrepreneurs? I ask that because the Ski Channel isn’t really that old, just a few years ago; the Tennis Channel is not much older than that.
You found a way to get these things off the ground in an era where people are scratching their head trying to figure out whether or not that entrepreneurial spirit is still alive and well and whether or not there are still opportunities for that spirit to thrive.
Bellamy: I say this – in the next 50 years forward and the next 50 years backwards, we might be in the single most fertile, amazing time to start businesses, to start things.
Tavis: You think so?
Bellamy: Raising capital, not a picnic, but everything is in flux, and when things are in flux, that’s when Googles appear and twitters appear and new forms of communication and business. We’re just changing, and so smart people are going to be able to take advantage of those shifts.
Tavis: Finally, tell me about this project that we started with, “The Story,” and what it’s about and how you’re touring it around the country.
Bellamy: The story emanated – I’m sitting in a chair and I’m talking to these pro skiers every day, and much different than the Tennis Channel where the players are wonderful but every story was the same. I’m from Russia, my mom was a tennis pro, I hit one trillion tennis balls and now I’m number one in the world, I defeat everyone. (Laughter)
The stories were like, it’s a good story, that’s 100 times I’ve heard it. In the ski industry, it was, “I’m a pro skier, I’m driving to Squaw Valley and I stopped in Jackson Hole and I loved the mountain so much I just quit my competitive career and I was a dishwasher and I rode that mountain every day.”
They were so deep and so hearty and I lived in my car to be able to ski. So it made me go, “Okay, these guys have real depth of character, so I’m going to build a ski movie that is based on story, their stories.”
So we took 23 amazing athletes and amazing people from Bode and Lindsay at the absolute apex down to near-homeless people at the bottom and went and told their stories and then spliced them together in what we consider a pretty damn good film.
Tavis: Well, maybe I’ll be convinced after seeing it a second, third, fourth, fifth time to actually try it one day. In the meantime, thank you for coming on.
Bellamy: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: Congrats – no, congrats on the Ski Channel and the Tennis Channel. Steve Bellamy.
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