When Jamie Bosworth hatched the idea of a golf-influenced lifestyle television network in 2010, one of his first calls was to friend Andy Hydorn.
Hydorn is co-owner of Back 9 USA, an apparel brand whose backward-nine logo is so clever that it leads you to think, How did I not see that?!
Bosworth told Hydorn he had an idea for a television network and that he wanted to use Hydorn's brand identity as its logo. The problem was, as with so many underdog ideas, money was tight -- basically nonexistent. Hydorn, who built Back 9 USA in 2003 after a long career in golf's hard goods segment, understood. He and his partners agreed to let Bosworth use his logo royalty-free until the company raised the amount of money it needed to get on the air. Then they'd negotiate a deal moving forward, which could have ranged wildly from a royalty deal to an offering stock in the TV network to buying Back 9 USA outright.
Some four years later, a month before its TV launch in September 2014, Back9Network flipped the 9 around and ended its relationship with Back 9 USA. The logo Hydorn first scribbled after waking up in the middle of the night has played a huge role in getting the Connecticut-based network as far as it did.
Pre-recession, if you had asked anyone in the golf industry if the sport could support another television network, the answer was a resounding yes, particularly if it was geared toward the 24 million Americans who play golf and the millions more who might like some facet of the game's culture: fine wine, cigars, travel and the like. However, the television landscape was beginning to change.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, launching a TV network was relatively simple (but still difficult). Now, television providers had a ton of channels they had green-lit, the overwhelming majority of them loitering on their lineups, attracting few viewers and proving a burden. Viewing habits were changing, too, with an already fractured audience breaking up even further with the proliferation of on-demand viewing options. If a new TV network makes it to air today, it has huge money behind it -- typically the concoction of one of the providers themselves. What made the idea of Back9 even more challenging was that Comcast already owned Golf Channel, turning it into a cash cow because of its rights deals with all five major golf tours, as well with the acquisition of tee-time reservation service GolfNow in 2008.
Back9Network had a long climb and, accordingly, it grew in baby steps -- not the pace Bosworth wanted, but the pace something that had to be as close to grassroots as creating a TV network could be. The daunting task didn't deter Bosworth, but explained his industry-inward approach. He wanted to court golf, where he had been wading for years as a player agent and product man for companies like Odyssey Golf. If the case for Back9Network wasn't apparent with Bosworth's urging, he might have an easier time making the hard sell to TV operators if he could demonstrate industry-wide support, indicating not only an audience for the content he wanted to produce but a healthy advertiser base.
Bosworth and co-founder Reid Gorman, a master tactician and planner who was the organizer to Bosworth's mad genius, took their concept to the industry at its biggest, most visible forum: the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
When Back9Network made its debut there in 2012, it did so at a time when the Show, as its known, was still coming back from a near-death experience during the lows of the Great Recession. Nothing screamed opulence, deep pockets and prosperity like the PGA Shows of the 1990s and early 2000s. However, after the world's economy fell off the cliff in 2008, so did spending in golf, giving the game little reason to celebrate.
Back9Network seemed to represent an optimism for the game's future. If the game was dead, why would someone want to televise a corpse? Back9Network was brash and unapologetic, often to its detriment, wanting to bring out aspects of the sport that might have priced out or pissed off players. However, the vague nature of "golf lifestyle" piqued interest. It could be whatever you wanted. What it lacked in specifics about programming and direction, though, it had in its logo.
No one wanted a Golf Channel hat. Everyone wanted a Back9Network -- really, a Back 9 USA -- hat. That started to create a problem for Hydorn.
While so many golfheads clamored for anything with that backwards 9 on it, Back9Network had already made a minor alteration in how it used his logo. It took the circle of blank space in the nine and slid it left. Now, his identity had become intertwined with a still-nonexistent TV network and the company had begun, in Hydorn's view, to slowly commandeer it.
Hydorn and partner Phil Long met with Bosworth and associates during Back9Network's coming-out party at the Icebar in Orlando during the PGA Show. A new network couldn't have brand confusion, so Back9Network tried its best to pass its logo off as a new, unique idea.
"They literally said to me, 'That's why we changed the logo, to kinda make it ours,'" Long said.
In one breath, Bosworth would say Back9Network wouldn't be anything without Hydorn. In another, Bosworth would say, Long claims, that he was on the board of Back 9 USA. He wasn't. Hydorn says he'd heard through the grapevine that Bosworth said he owned the company. Not true, not funny. Bosworth was looking for a way to grab Back 9 USA at a bargain price with little regard for Hydorn and his backers.
It was true that Bosworth saw a future for his company that went well beyond media, including clothing and other products. Back9Network was supposed to be a ubiquitous brand.
“He was really trying hard to figure out how to own Back 9 USA but he was just not very realistic about how to do that,” Hydorn said.
When it was clear robbery wasn't a viable approach, Back9Network offered stock to Back 9 USA. The problem is that the toilet-paper dispenser of shares wasn't just extended to Hydorn, but also to higher-profile new hires and pro golfers, which the company tried to court as "ambassadors" on Tour. Padraig Harrington, Tony Jacklin, William McGirt and other pros were offered stock in exchange for wearing the logo or putting it on their bag. Bosworth offered too much stock, more than the company had. Anything to get the name out there. Anything to get on TV.
Despite promises of an impending launch in 2012 and again in 2013, Back9Network wasn't on TV and was having a hard time keeping the interest of an industry starting to roll its collective eyes at each successive promise. Then in June 2014, Back9Network announced it was going on air in three months' time, the day after the Ryder Cup ended. It would only be on DirecTV and only in standard definition, but the goal had been met. Hydorn was expecting he and his company could get their due from Bosworth for years' worth of goodwill.
Even if he wanted to, Bosworth wouldn't get to make that payoff.
Bosworth resigned as CEO and chairman of the company's Board of Directors on July 30, 2014. The co-founder claims he was pushed out in a power struggle with board chair and Hartford businessman Sandy Cloud, who leased the company its first space in a renovated building on Lewis Street. Bosworth said Cloud told him that he had $10 million in needed investment waiting, but it was predicated on Bosworth seeing himself out the door. Bosworth walked.
Charles Cox, the company's Chief Financial Officer, was installed as CEO. A practical and fair man, Cox answered Hydorn's call and invited him to Hartford to see if they could reach a deal. It was a token offer to meet and an unacceptable one to Hydorn to keep using his logo. Not long after the meeting, Hydorn sent a cease-and-desist letter to Back9Network, asking the company to materially change its logo. It flipped the 9 forward.
Back9Network went on air after raising some $30 million in private money, as well $5 million in loans and guarantees from the state of Connecticut. By comparison, Golf Channel, with the name power of Arnold Palmer and Joe Gibbs, went to air in 1995 with nearly $100 million raised. The money Cloud said was in waiting hasn't yet materialized, at least in the form of a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In its first few months on the air, Back9Network earned some press with its on-air product. Ahmad Rashad's eponymous on-course interview show scored with headline-making interviews with Bill Murray and basketball legend Michael Jordan. Jordan's interview briefly dominated headlines, with the 52-year-old baller adding then removing the Commander-in-Chief from his dream foursome, calling him a "shitty golfer" in revoking the invite.
However, after those initial big gets, the news out of Hartford hasn't been good. It's been reported in the press and repeated in a lawsuit against the company that they're paying DirecTV $7 million per year to be on their air. The company sued Bosworth at the end of 2014, then withdrew its suit in deference to arbitration. Back9 missed payroll for non-hourly employees on Jan. 19, then cut its workforce by 40 percent on Jan. 26, the Monday after the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
On Feb. 23, Back9Network announced it was indefinitely ceasing operations until it can find more money.
As Back9Network fades to black, Back 9 USA now faces a challenge. The apparel company, which started with making hats, now makes all kinds of apparel, as well head covers. It makes it with the original backwards 9 logo. However, there are thousands of bastardized backwards 9s -- the logo Back9Network tried to pass off as its own -- in golf's ether. You can't go to a PGA Tour event without seeing one. As the media company slips out of the public consciousness, Hydorn hopes Back 9 USA can get back on track to become the lifestyle brand he had always imagined, well before Bosworth, but without the baggage of lawsuits, controversy and bad press that came with the ill-fated TV network.
Back 9 USA is, well, making the turn.