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SPORTVIEW

Satellite radio getting boost from sports

Are you Sirius?

I was -- serious, that is -- when I wondered why anyone would go out and buy a special radio, then pay $12.95 each month to listen to 100-plus commercial-free channels on one of the country's two satellite radio networks, Sirius or XM.

After all, who would pay for something that was available for free on their existing radios?

It turns out a lot of people. Even this sideline viewer now can see the momentum building for the product.

"The [Wall Street] analysts project there will be between 40 and 45 million satellite radio subscribers by the end of the decade," said Jim Collins, Sirius vice president of corporate and investor relations. That's still down the road. For now, the Sirius folks are hoping to be able to use their New Year's bubbly to toast their 1 millionth subscriber, while rival XM is looking toward signing up its 3 millionth.

Both providers are using sports to promote growth. Sirius has a $220 million, seven-year deal with the National Football League to carry the audio of every game. XM has a similar deal, for 11 years and $650 million, with Major League Baseball.

Sirius has added 400,000 subscribers since August, much of which the company attributes to sports in general and its NFL deal in particular.

However, while sports so far is the loss-leader to get people to sample the product, Sirius has another big draw lined up in Howard Stern, who is scheduled to come aboard Jan. 1, 2006, joining the likes of present show hosts Bill Walton, Tony Hawk, Eminem, and Lance Armstrong, celebrities who host music shows. If Stern can bring a million new signups -- roughly 10 percent of his national audience -- he'll immediately pay for himself.

Once people sign up, they tend to get hooked on the product. "Our [cancellation rate] is only 1.7 percent per month," said Tola Murphy-Baron, senior vice president of marketing at Sirius. She negotiated the Sirius deal with the NFL, where she not only used to work but for whom she negotiated the original "NFL Sunday Ticket" package with DirecTV. In recent seasons, one of the biggest complaints from displaced Patriots fans around the world was their inability to pick up the audio of flagship station WBCN (104.1 FM) on www.NFL.com, something the Sirius deal has rectified.

"Sirius is doing a great job," said Patriots vice chairman Jonathan Kraft. "And it's not only their gamecasts. `Sirius NFL Radio' is entertaining and informative. If you're driving around, it's a wonderful place to get NFL news 24/7."

Driving around, as Kraft mentioned, is a key to satellite radio. General Motors and Honda have deals with XM, and Sirius has agreements with Audi, BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, Infiniti, Nissan, Toyota, and Porsche.

Last night, Patriots fans around the country could choose Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti on Ch. 124 or flip to Ch. 123 and catch Howard David (known in these parts as the predecessor of Sean Grande on Celtics play-by-play) and Jim Mandich on Dolphins radio.

"What our research has found is that people start listening to NFL games to test the product, but then find themselves getting hooked on both the talk and the music," said Murphy-Baron. "The industry experience is that people buy the product, then find themselves listening for reasons other than the one that drove them to the original purchase."

Justin Hyland, who grew up as a Patriots fan in New Milford, Conn., did just that. He follows the Patriots (and New York Giants) on Sirius from his home in Houston, but finds himself tuning in all week for music, talk, and comedy. "Local radio in this market isn't what I was used to back home," he said. "My only wish is that one of the two satellite providers had both the NFL and baseball."

Sirius is hoping its other rights deals -- to carry English Premier League soccer, all games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, NBA games and, if it ever returns, the NHL -- will keep that growth coming. Unlike cable TV, there are no additional pay channels or tiers when stations are added.

The original concept of radio and TV was to "broadcast;" that is, to reach the widest possible audience. Today that's changed. The entrepreneurial spirit of those who start cable networks or propose satellite channels is to narrowcast; that is, reach fans of a certain sport or music. But instead of doing it in a single market, the goal is to do it nationwide.

The Sirius people aren't saying what they need as a break-even number of subscribers to make the whole deal work.

"What matters is whether there's enough in the bank," said Collins. "Well, we've got $800 million in the bank. That means, despite our losses and operating debt, we have no net debt."

It should be fun to see whether the income will offset the debts before that nest egg runs out.

But one thing is clear: This group is Sirius and serious.

Analyze this

ABC used Dr. Phil to host last night's "Monday Night Football" opening, having him "analyze" the Dolphins' and Patriots' mascots. Because neither mascot could speak, there was no danger of putting a foot (or flipper) in mouth. Dr. Phil was worried about the two being happy in "the workplace." While the Dolphin sort of, er, "flippered out," the Patriot mascot's only complaint was that his two Super Bowl championship rings tended to scratch each other . . . Fox's comedic prognosticator Frank Caliendo seems to get funnier by the week (and his picks aren't half bad, either) . . . Meanwhile, for those of you familiar with him, animated comic Thurston Long seems to have run afoul of the CBS censors, winding up in what can best be called "a state of suspended animation." "Officially, he's `on assignment,' but off the record, he got way out of line at the Christmas party, said some things he shouldn't have, and has been given some time to think about that. Apparently all his success has gone to his head a bit, and people around here, including his bosses, are not too pleased with that," said CBS Sports president Sean McManus. Translation: Thurston will be back bigger and better than ever this weekend . . . The topic of tomorrow's Globe "Sportsplus" show on NESN at 6:30 and 10:30 p.m. will be Patriots-Jets and a look ahead at the NFL playoffs in this season of league "haves" and "have-nots." . . . The ever-entrepreneurial folks at www.theremyreport.com have come up with another late Christmas present suggestion: Two spring training travel packages -- one for 8 days and 7 nights, the other for 5 days and 4 nights.

Mike at the mike

Mike Giardi has signed a contract extension at NECN and will be weekend anchor for sportscasts and "Sports Late Night." "I'm thrilled that Mike has signed up for this important role and feel he'll be a fabulous host," said Charlie Kravetz, NECN news director. The 11 p.m.-midnight show will get a new look in mid-January after the NECN sports staff gets back to full strength with a third person joining Chris Collins and Giardi to replace Mark Ockerbloom, who has settled in with Butch Stearns at Fox 25 . . . Tonight's final edition of "NESN Retro" at 8 looks at "The Changing Face of Red Sox Baseball" with the Globe's Jackie MacMullan and Gordon Edes, host Tom Caron, and the Lowell Sun's Rob Bradford, author of "Chasing Steinbrenner." . . . WB56 and NESN have collaborated on a preview of Boston College's Continental Tire Bowl appearance against North Carolina. The show airs on NESN at 6 and 11 tomorrow night and again as a half-hour special on Ch. 56 on Christmas night. Ch. 56's Mike Ratte and NESN's Jayme Parker host the show with BC coach Tom O'Brien and QB Paul Peterson . . . TNT's Charles Barkley interviews the Lakers' Kobe Bryant Thursday during a one-hour NBA pregame show at 7 p.m., leading to the Timberwolves-Spurs game at 8 . . . WEEI's Glenn Ordway does his customary "Patriots Monday" appearance on FSNE tonight at 6:30, leading into Celtics-Heat at 7:30 . . . The Christmas weekend features four days of NFL games, starting with Green Bay-Minnesota Friday afternoon at 3, called by the No. 1 Fox crew of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, and Pam Oliver. Saturday, Christmas Day -- and don't the networks love having the holiday on the weekend -- CBS has Raiders-Chiefs at 5 p.m., called by Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf, and Armen Keteyian, followed by ESPN's telecast of Broncos-Titans at 8:30 with Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, and Michele Tafoya. Sunday's coverage centers around Patriots-Jets at 4 p.m. with the CBS `A Team' of Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, and Bonnie Bernstein. The ESPN crew is scheduled for a second straight two-games-in-two-nights stint with Browns-Dolphins at 8:30 p.m. Fox has a Sunday doubleheader with Giants-Bengals scheduled as the 1 p.m. game followed by a TBD (likely Panthers-Buccaneers) at 4:15, but neither game was finalized as of late yesterday afternoon.

Bill Griffith's email address is griffith@globe.com. 

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