July 23, 2012

Back9 deal an eagle for Hartford

Contributed Rendering
Contributed Rendering
Fledgling lifestyle golf network Back9Network is planning to build a new TV studio in Constitution Plaza in downtown Hartford, in the space formerly held by Spris restaurant.
Contributed Renderings

James Bosworth sees Connecticut as the sports media capital of the world.

With ESPN, NBC Sports, Yes Network and other major studios situated across the state, Bosworth said Connecticut, with its attractive film tax credit program, has quickly become a destination spot for growing sports networks.

Now Bosworth, the CEO of a start-up lifestyle golf network, is hoping to add to the list. And it could be a major boon for Hartford.

Bosworth's fledgling Back9Network media company, whose investors include Hollywood star and director Clint Eastwood and NBA pro Ray Allen, is finalizing a deal to open a $7 million TV network studio in Constitution Plaza in downtown Hartford.

The 6,500-square-foot state-of-the-art studio will be located in the space formerly held by Spris restaurant, and provide the central business district the unique TV broadcast tenant that it's been missing since WFSB Channel 3 moved from Hartford to Rocky Hill in 2007.

Back9Network, which has its corporate headquarters on Lewis Street, is also searching for more downtown real estate to house administrative staff. A deal could be finalized in the coming weeks, sources said, and the company will occupy about 20,000 square feet of space in the city.

Some officials are calling Back9Network's growth a potential game changer for Hartford. And the state is buying in as well, providing Back9Network with $1 million in grants and forgivable loans as well as film tax credit incentives to help with the studio-build out, hiring of dozens of new employees, and production costs.

Construction of the new studio is expected to start in September and the company hopes to launch its TV network in the first quarter of 2013. Back9Network's official website — where it is already airing some of its programming content — went live in April.

"I see the potential for Hartford and all of Connecticut to be considered the Silicon Valley of sports media," said Bosworth, a former golf marketing executive and PGA assistant pro at Pebble Beach golf course in California. "We wanted Hartford and Hartford wanted us."

Bosworth has a deep background in marketing golf brands, most recently as the executive vice president of sales, marketing, and product development for Callaway Golf. He said he started Back9Network to cater to what he says is an underserved and coveted demographic — the golf lifestyle consumer.

The network is meant to be an alternative to the Golf Channel, which caters largely to golf fans. Back9Network isn't interested in broadcasting live golf tournaments. Instead it aims to target the golf consumer by offering TV programming related to travel, fashion and equipment that is attractive to a wider ranging audience.

That includes women, kids, new golfers as well as the avid fan. Programming will be a mix of original shows including celebrity profiles, reality shows and comedic series centered on and around golf.

It includes a golf dating program called a "Hole Lotta Love," and "Extreme Golf," which will feature celebrities and athletes playing golf in unusual locations like building rooftops and the desert.

There will also be pre- and post-tournament coverage, as well as live broadcasts from the downtown Hartford studio, where Bosworth's wife, Jenn — a former Fox 61 reporter — and UConn alum Charles Everett will be the main on-air anchors.

The plan is to bring celebrities and professional golfers and other on-air personalities to the Hartford studio from time to time as well, Bosworth said.

"A lot of our job is making everyone feel comfortable about getting involved in the sport," Bosworth said. "This is not an exclusionary network."

Bosworth said the company is negotiating production deals with PGA Tour Productions and USA Today and has had TV contract/distribution agreement discussions with most cable and satellite providers.

But the TV deals typically don't get worked out until a network is closer to launch, Bosworth said.

"You don't want to make a deal until you have a studio," Bosworth said.

In terms of the new studio, renderings are complete and architects and set designers have already been hired, so the process is well underway. The lease is in the final stages of being worked out.

The open window fašade will allow passer buyers to look directly inside the studio, which will feature two sets.

The location on Constitution Plaza has traditionally had restaurant tenants, including most recently Braza, which abruptly shut its doors in April. But the building's high ceilings make the space attractive for a studio, said Hartford real estate broker Jonathan Putnam of Cushman & Wakefield.

Putnam said landing Back9Network is a major win for the city, which has tried but failed in the past to lure other sports networks, mainly Bristol behemoth ESPN.

"It's a unique tenant for downtown," Putnam said. "I think it's a great addition because you have a company that you would expect to grow and prosper."

Construction could be completed as early as January, Bosworth said, and the hope is to launch the TV network sometime in the first quarter of 2013.

Back9Network has some financial muscle behind it and has already raised $5.3 million from investors including Eastwood, who is the company's creative chair. Bosworth said Eastwood, whom he met while a golf pro at Pebble Beach, has taken a significant interest in the startup including providing feedback on the studio, talent selection for shows, and overall branding of the network.

Other investors include James D. Wehr, president and CEO of The Phoenix Cos. in Hartford, Hartford real estate developer and former state senator Sandy Cloud, UConn's Geno Auriemma and Paul Pendergast, and Greg Hopkins, the CEO of Cleveland Golf Co.

Bosworth said Back9Network is in the process of raising its second round of funding, but would not disclose details.

The company is also getting support from the state, officials confirmed to the Hartford Business Journal.

Besides being eligible for Connecticut's generous film tax credits that help offset production, infrastructure and capital expenditures, the state is kicking in an additional $1 million incentive package, said James Watson, a spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The assistance will include a 10-year, $750,000 loan at 1 percent interest that the company has matched with $5 million, Watson said.

The Department of Economic and Community Development is also providing support through the state's Small Business Express program. That includes a $100,000 matching grant and a five-year, $250,000 job creation incentive loan at 2 percent interest for the creation of 10 jobs within one year, Watson said.

Bosworth said the company is already in hiring mode and plans to have 45 to 50 employees by first quarter of 2013. They currently have about a dozen or so people on staff.

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