Peter Steckelman – Tennis Channel
- Written by: Jennifer Shea
- Produced by: Victor Martins & Gavin O’Connor
- Est. reading time: 5 mins
Novak. Rafa. Roger. Serena. To tennis fans, these names will instantly evoke climactic clashes and extraordinary displays of skill. They’ll also recall gripping tales of professional rivalries and sacrifices made for the game.
Enabling the Tennis Channel to broadcast those stories is Peter Steckelman, the channel’s senior vice president of business and legal affairs. An avid tennis player, he says tennis is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than before, with new opportunities for streaming, education and storytelling.
“The power and the finesse of the game has gotten more interesting,” Steckelman says, explaining that pros exhibit a higher level of skill nowadays. “The amount of competitive energy, desire and focus that you see from players makes it that much more aspirational to people like me who play.”
As tennis titans bring the game to new levels, the Tennis Channel is there for new audiences, informing them about the players and each game’s developments with expert analysis.
“There’s a trophy on the line,” Steckelman says. “People want to see violent forehands, they want to see wicked backhands, they want to see aces, they want to see drop shots.”
Negotiating key deals
While tennis may be better than ever, the sport suffered when COVID-19 hit. In March 2020, Steckelman and his colleagues found themselves scrambling for something to put on the air.
“What it did was basically stop our sport cold,” he says. “We as a sport had to pivot and we as a network certainly had to pivot. And we were able to do that in a couple of different ways.”
One was to draw on the channel’s library of already-aired content. The network also launched a three-hour live show, “Tennis Channel Live,” featuring social media posts, remote interviews and guest commentary on how everyone from Venus Williams to amateurs were weathering the pandemic.
Once live exhibition matches started again, the network began broadcasting them. These were matches in smaller venues between lower-ranked players and teaching pros. According to Steckelman, these were among the earliest live sports to return to television.
While he admits this was a challenging time for the Tennis Channel, he says there was a silver lining. He was finally able to hammer out a master rights deal with the Association of Tennis Professionals, the umbrella organization for professional men’s tennis, which runs the ATP Tour, the top men’s tennis competition. The agreement made the Tennis Channel the exclusive U.S. home of all events on the ATP calendar.
“It was easier to accomplish with the multitude of stakeholders because it was easier to corral people,” Steckelman says. “We were working with folks in Europe, in New York, in California. So, it was easier to say everybody could be on a call on a Tuesday when people weren’t on planes.”
Steckelman also negotiated an expansion of the Tennis Channel’s exclusive rights on the WTA Tour, the top women’s tennis competition, and an expansion of its rights on certain grand slams.
“Some of the deals were expired, so we decided to take a more comprehensive approach, to have a larger set of rights across a bigger set of platforms,” he says.
Steering international expansion
Steckelman has also been guiding the Tennis Channel’s international expansion, signing deals for territory-specific live tournament rights, working within local regulatory frameworks and enlisting local consultants and tennis associations to explain local audiences.
“For us, internationally, it’s a multi-prong approach,” Steckelman says.
In Germany, the channel broadcasts ATP and WTP tournaments and high-level German league tennis. In the UK and India, it works with local tennis organizations to determine the best programming for each country’s viewers. In all cases, Steckelman helped secure the streaming and broadcast rights.
He also manages the Tennis Channel’s intellectual property portfolio, ensuring brand consistency and trademark protection across all territories.
When the Tennis Channel expands operations to a new country, its first communications with local regulators aren’t always seamless. But Steckelman casts the expansion as an opportunity for all parties.
“We’re going in and saying, ‘We’re here to leverage our media business to help expand the sport in your territory,’” he says. “So, we try to make it a win-win for everyone.”
Steckelman applies that “win-win” approach to his extracurricular activities and philanthropy as well. A longtime member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, this past October, he won its Jonathan S. Silber Network Member of the Year Award for his service as chair of ACC’s Sports and Entertainment Network and his contributions to the ACC community.
He also donates his time to charities, a contribution that pays dividends in personal fulfillment, he says. For example, Steckelman joined the board of directors of Phoenix House California, a mental health organization, after a friend told him it was looking for new members.
“I said, ‘Absolutely, what can I do to help?’” Steckelman recalls. “Because this is something to help not only share my operational experience and skills, but to help steer an organization from transition into growth and opportunity to better serve its clients.”
A graduate of Rutgers University, where he earned his B.A. in 1987, and New York Law School, where he earned his J.D. in 1993, Steckelman began his legal career with positions at Disney and Fox Family/Saban. He then worked his way up to entertainment counsel at Mattel, to vice president of business and legal affairs at Warner Bros., to vice president of legal affairs at Konami and to his current role at the Tennis Channel in 2011.
Along the way, he’s found time to volunteer at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, where he helps kids facing serious illnesses, and to co-chair the leadership team at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society-California Southland.
“No matter what the challenge, tennis has taught me to be prepared, be positive and be flexible,” Steckelman says. “As Billie Jean King says, ‘Champions adjust,’ so be a champion in everything you do.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2023 Edition here.
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