David Hawk: All In
by John Martin Fey
David Hawk was fascinated with the gambling industry before he was old enough to legally participate. He was pursuing his degree in finance at UNO when he made his first trip to Las Vegas and has made other trips to the entertainment capital of the world since. "I started going out there just for fun and everything else. I realized right away, I wasn't going to make a living being a gambler. You have to do it for recreation. You learn that the hard way."
Gambling is just one of his passions, though. The 1996 UNO graduate also loves the links. "I love golf," he says. "I've played since I was 7 or 8 years old." Like many avid duffers, Hawk became a big fan of the Golf Channel, "from the beginning."
Eventually, Hawk's two passions bore an idea—a cable television network devoted to gambling—that wouldn't go away. "It's getting more and more popular," he thought. "Why isn't there a channel devoted to it?"
Now, after nearly two years of research and capital-raising, Hawk and his partner, Robert Carlsson, are about to take an $82 million roll of the dice that their Casino and Gaming Television channel will pay off. With a launch expected by the end of 2004, it appears they will at least be at the table.
A Council Bluffs native (St. Albert High School Class of 1990), the 32-year-old Hawk began his venture with no experience in the cable TV network industry, but with plenty of expertise in the key to starting one—a background in finance.
While attending UNO, Hawk worked with the Jim Hawk Group, a Council Bluffs company that his grandfather founded 40 years ago. He became head of finance for the company, the largest distributor of Great Dane truck trailers in the country. Later, Hawk founded Global Financial Group, one of the largest cash-receivable financing companies in the Midwest.
He and Carlsson, an investment banker from Chicago, were friends long before Hawk pitched his cable TV dream. "He just absolutely loved it," Hawk remembers. Initial research gave the partners hope that the dream could become a reality. "There are 25 million Americans who play golf, and of those 25 million Americans, there are 10 to 12 million who play more than twice a year," Hawk says. "I saw that there were 53 million Americans who went to a casino last year, and they made 300 million visits." That compares to 106.5 million visits to major and minor league baseball games in the same span. According to an American Gaming Association poll, Americans in 2002 legally wagered more than $63 billion.
"That opened my eyes a little bit," Hawk says of such numbers.
Hawk and Carlsson started their journey toward becoming cable TV executives with baby steps. Hawk chuckles at their early inquiries. "We spent about a month (January 2003) just surfing the Net on how you start a cable network. Obviously, we had no clue. We saw a lot of junk. There was one guy out there called the Cable Maven. For $159 bucks you got a starter kit on how to start a cable network."
The partners eventually went to such leading cable providers as Comcast and Time Warner for help. They were directed to Vanguard Media, which was interested enough to sign a contract to take the concept to the next level. Market research proved to Vanguard that the idea wasn't an insurmountable game. The $82 million Hawk and Carlsson raised showed that the entrepreneurs were willing to back their bravado with bank.
Now it was time to hire the experts who could make the network a success. "I don't care what business it is," Hawk says, "it's all about people, the right people. We needed to bring on people who really understand this, understand the idea, like the idea and have major experience and have done this before."
The first hire, as president and CEO, was Nickolas J. Rhodes, part of the team that built Speed Channel and the Outdoor Life Network. Next on board as chief financial and chief operating officer was William Keenan, previously senior vice president and chief financial officer of E! Entertainment for more than a decade. Hawk says it wasn't money that lured Rhodes and Keenan to the venture. "These guys were very successful guys," Hawk says. "Been there, done that, made a lot of money. Getting involved in a startup was exciting to them."
Steven A. Cheskin, former executive vice president and general manager of The Travel Channel, was hired to advise in the development and direction of Las Vegas and gaming-related programming. Cheskin was instrumental in nurturing the The Travel Channel's highly popular World Poker Tournament, the first cable show of its kind. "Poker right now is going crazy," Hawk says. "The Travel Channel started it with the World Poker Tournament. ESPN carries the World Series of Poker."
With the key players on board, a programming strategy for CGTV then was formulated, broken into five main categories: casino games; recreation; tournaments and events; sports; and entertainment (additional details can be found at the network's website, www.cgtv.com). Though gaming instruction will be part of programming, it will be a small overall percentage. "I tell people it's not an actual gambling channel. It's more of a lifestyle channel in the industry with entertainment and information."
Since the network will be shown on digital cable systems, "there will be plans to make it interactive," Hawk says, "but viewers won't be winning money, but trips. The legal part of that is so unclear right now."
Hawk understands there will be naysayers who think his channel would feed a gambler's addiction. CGTV will run occasional public service announcements directed at those needing help.
"There is some addiction there," Hawk acknowledges. "Some people have a problem with it. That's true about everything. Of everyone who walks through a door in a casino, less than 2 percent of them have a problem. It's a lot less percentage-wise than the problem with alcohol or anything else. It's like anything else; you have to do it in moderation."
With $82 million at risk, though, there's nothing moderate about Hawk's gamble on gambling.
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