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Asper punching away at pumping up Fight Network

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THE first rule about The Fight Network is you talk about The Fight Network as much as possible.

Leonard Asper, who just celebrated his second anniversary as its CEO, has been talking up the Toronto-based specialty channel with advertisers and content providers in the hopes of creating a mini-global empire.

"Our goal is to have six to eight niche sports and men's lifestyle channels," he said.

The longtime CEO of Canwest Global Communications, before the Winnipeg-based company went bankrupt in 2009, took a couple of significant steps to that end last week.

First, Anthem Media Group, the parent of The Fight Network and of which Asper is 51 per cent owner, was granted regulatory approval to launch its second channel, one dedicated to fantasy sports.

The channel, which will target sports fans who make up their own fantasy squads in a variety of sports -- the industry is estimated to be worth $4 billion a year in North America -- is expected to launch early this summer.

A couple of days later, Anthem made a "significant" equity investment in The Pursuit Channel, America's largest outdoor television network. Focusing on hunting and fishing, it's available in 38 million homes in the U.S.

Asper has also signed his first international expansion deal that will launch The Fight Network in Angola and Mozambique on Feb. 15 and in Portugal at the end of March.

If that wasn't enough, he is also working on some carriage deals with cable providers in Canada to put The Fight Network in their packages for customers. His goal is to get the channel included in the most popular ones so it results in the biggest boost to its subscriber base.

"It's kind of like shelf space at Loblaws. You want to be at eye level in the front of the store," he said.

"It's a niche channel. It was never meant to have mass appeal but you only need 10 to 20 per cent of a market (to make it profitable)."

Asper spends much of his time on a plane as he tries to build up The Fight Network's international business and profile. He is a regular visitor to Winnipeg, where he still has many friends and some business interests.

None of this expansion would have been possible if it weren't for Asper leading an overhaul of the channel's brand shortly after he came on board in December 2010.

The first move was to boost its programming of live fight events, such as boxing, mixed martial arts and kickboxing. It went from six hours in 2010, up to 200 hours in 2011 and to 300 hours last year. Then, Asper revamped the logo to be more stylized and consistent with other sports channels (and didn't have blood on it).

Other programming additions included interview shows in which fighters discussed their lives outside of the ring.

"It's softening the channel but keeping the hardcore happy. The softening brought in a whole host of advertisers, like beer and car companies. It used to just be 'get new abs,' " he said.

"Now we're up to 60 or so mainstream advertisers. The ad revenue has gone through the roof. That got us more capital to reinvest in programming."

Also this year, the channel built a studio and started doing its own news programming, including doing live press conferences.

Asper wants to increase the subscriber base in Canada, currently at about 1.1 million people, up 250,000 from two years ago, launch The Fight Network in other markets and build up the number of channels under the corporate umbrella.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 B4

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