People - May 2005

She has a clear picture of new sports network
By Frank Maley

Naomi Travers will tell you she’s a daddy’s girl. As an only child, she spent a lot of time with both parents. But she gets her analytical bent from her father, who was a weapons specialist in the U.S. Secret Service in Washington, D.C. He’s the one who imbued her with a passion for jazz, reading and sports. “I spent a lot of time sitting next to him watching ice skating and boxing. We went to a lot of college basketball games.”

But logging time as a couch potato doesn’t necessarily prepare anyone to start or run a sports television network. Nor, for that matter, do writing rules for the Federal Communications Commission and negotiating media deals, two jobs she held after getting a bachelor’s in journalism from Howard University in 1987 and a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1993.

Nothing, really, prepared her for what lay ahead when Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television cable network, asked her to start Carolinas Sports Entertainment Television, anchored by his new National Basketball Association franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats. She didn’t flinch. “I didn’t feel frightened at all. I felt confident in the concept.”

After finishing law school and clerking for a judge, she had spent two years with the FCC, then three in a law firm representing companies buying and selling media outlets. In 1999, she moved to Washington-based BET, where Travers — whose mother is Korean and father was black, Irish and American Indian — was chief transactional and intellectual-property attorney.

After New York-based Viacom bought BET in 2001, she worked part time for Viacom and part time for The RLJ Cos., which manages Johnson’s investments. In 2002, she switched to RLJ full time.

Her main task after taking over in January 2004 as executive vice president of media rights and entertainment at Charlotte-based C-SET was to negotiate an agreement with Time Warner Cable, the largest cable-television service in the Carolinas. Some basketball fans still see the deal as a rookie mistake that further alienates the team from its fans. Not only is it moving into a taxpayer-funded arena next season and boosting ticket prices an average of 7%, most games will air on a pricey digital-cable channel that reaches only 36% of Time Warner customers in Charlotte.

Travers, 38, admits C-SET — not to mention the Bobcats — would have been better off in a basic-cable package, which might attract more viewers and advertising revenue. But Time Warner didn’t have any basic channels to spare, and the season opener was less than a year away. “We needed to get the business up and running.” She’s encouraged that about 65% of new cable subscribers nationwide opt for digital service. And 75% of C-SET revenue comes from subscriptions paid by cable companies. She expects it to be profitable within seven years.

It still fills a lot of airtime with Bobcats reruns and ESPN News, but it’s building a studio that will allow it to produce sports news. It airs college football games and plans to add college baseball and minor-league baseball. “Slowly but surely, we will have a full complement of year-round programming,” Travers says.

It’s the kind of network her dad, who died of cancer in 1990, might have liked. Sometimes he haunts her work. “Whenever I see any beautiful play or impressive athletic feat, it makes me think about my dad.”