Leonard Asper has never been afraid to punch above his weight.
Take the time, in his younger hockey days, he unwisely challenged another player to a fight. His rival, who was 6 foot 2 and 220 pounds, easily overpowered Mr. Asper - a self-described "feisty welterweight" at 5 foot 10 and 170 pounds. But he learned his lesson. If anything, those sorts of losses only reinforce his predilection for betting on the little guy.
Now, a year after stepping down from his powerful role as chief executive officer of CanWest Global Communications Corp. amid its restructuring, Mr. Asper finds himself back in the media business - and back in a fight where the odds are against him.
In December, just months after leaving CanWest, Mr. Asper invested in The Fight Network. The move set heads scratching in the industry: The little channel, which launched in 2006, was bleeding money - it had an operating loss of $2.83-million in 2007 and $4.88-million the next year - and it went through a costly restructuring in 2009. And while it claimed to be the home of fighting content, it did not have the rights to broadcast the biggest brand in combat sports: the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Despite these challenges, Mr. Asper relishes the chance to build a network from the ground up. At The Fight Network offices in Toronto's west end, he is in the process of filling out paperwork to increase his stake from 30 per cent to 51 per cent.
"I wanted to be in media … I wanted to basically buy a small business and grow it," he says.
Surveying the specialty television landscape last summer, Mr. Asper landed on sports content - a huge value for advertisers because it is best watched live, not recorded for later when viewers can fast-forward through commercials. He believed The Fight Network had a strong brand and a well-defined target audience.
Mr. Asper has gone from running one of the largest media companies in Canada to manning the helm of an operation with 25 employees - small and scrappy, and going up against some big competition. Sportsnet, owned by Rogers Communications Inc., has a tight relationship with the UFC, and in March the two inked a four-year exclusive broadcast deal. Sportsnet spokesman James LaChapelle says the company is not aggressively planning on locking up other mixed martial arts content, but The Fight Network does have to contend with Score Media Inc. for the leftovers.
The company that owns The Score has exclusive rights to WWE content, the biggest name in wrestling. And on the MMA front, The Score is producing its own fighting series, shows fights from the Chicago-based Bellator Fighting Championships circuit, and is on the hunt for more.
"We're definitely going to be aggressive in our pursuit of MMA content," says Greg Sansone, vice-president of television for Score Media Inc.
But while Score is a competitor, Mr. Asper also sees it as a model for The Fight Network's growth: Take some of the content that the big guys don't want, and build a niche player. "There's a lot of content that won't rate well enough for them, but it rates well enough for us," Mr. Asper says. A good NHL game can draw in 500,000 to 600,000 viewers, but more targeted channels regularly survive on much less. "We get 50,000, 80,000 people watching a show, we're really excited."
Mr. Asper must now convince cable and satellite providers to move his channel into more attractive packages for their subscribers. He has already wooed 15 new advertisers, including big names such as Pepsi, Coke and Ford. And he has rebranded the channel with a cleaner, less gritty logo and a new approach to programming: plenty of fights, but also delving deeper into fight culture with profiles of athletes, reality shows and news. While the network does not have UFC, Mr. Asper says it can be a leader covering UFC news - but Sportsnet has a UFC show too, and better access.
"We make sure we take good care of them, being our broadcast partner," said Tom Wright, the director of operations for UFC Canada.
For now, Mr. Asper doesn't seem worried about his network's content. There is plenty of MMA - circuits he compares to European hockey leagues or Triple-A baseball - and fighting goes beyond mixed martial arts too. There is boxing, kickboxing leagues all over the world and wrestling. "It's clear sports is going down the route of … every sport will have its own channel. It'll be about that sport."
And he brings a sense of fiscal restraint to The Fight Network. Part of what led to the channel's downfall in 2008 was that it spent beyond its means, including a costly launch of a sister channel in the U.K. that faltered.
"I have a philosophy of, you sort of spend what you make, and you don't go too far out on a limb," he says. It's a philosophy that calls up memories of his last big fight, the loss of CanWest, and the lessons he learned from it.
"There's no debt here," Mr. Asper says. "It's just equity, it's my equity. I've got partners, they're good partners, and we'll build it."