Radio heads into orbit

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:13 PM ET

Television, it might be said, has become a rather hefty smorgasbord for sports fans.

Depending on how much you want to pay, the viewing feast gets bigger and better with each passing year.

Now it's the radio lover's turn.

Satellite radio has arrived in Canada in a major way. XM Canada launched last week with an offering chock full of hockey, and Sirius Canada joined the fun bright and early on Thursday morning.

While commercial-free music is at the heart of this new concept in radio, make no mistake about it: Sports will have a lot to say about how well it sells in the Great White North.

"It's a big part of what we're doing, especially in Canada," said Joe Thistel, the sports programming director for XM Canada, a closely aligned cousin to U.S. based XM Radio. "(Satellite radio) is primarily a music format, but there are some great talk alternatives.

"In Canada, the hockey channel is going to be brilliant for us."

ALL-HOCKEY CHANNEL

Thistel refers to Home Ice, a 24-hour all-hockey talk channel. The station involves such big-name commentators as Denis Potvin, Phil Esposito and Darren Pang, and is already making waves in the hockey world.

"We're really kicking butt with our guests," said Thistel, adding Home Ice is already attracting e-mail response from all over North America.

"Hockey is really under served in the U.S. People in the States (are telling us) they can't believe we're doing this."

While XM's 80-channel service also has a 24/7 Major League Baseball channel, it's clear the company is putting most of its eggs in the NHL's basket. XM is also offering 1,000 games of NHL play-by-play -- about 40 per week. Starting in 2007, XM begins a 10-year exclusive contract with the league.

For the next two years, though, you'll hear about 30 NHL games a week on Sirius, which is an exclusive rightsholder for the NFL, NBA and English Premiership soccer.

You'll also find Hardcore Sports Radio -- a Canadian channel from Score Media -- in Sirius Canada's 100-station universe.

"Sports is very important to us," said Mark Redmond, Sirius Canada's president and CEO.

Getting into the satellite radio game is a two-part process. First, you'll need a piece of hardware -- available at major electronics stores in the city. Then you pay a subscription fee ($12.99/month for XM or $14.99/month for Sirius).

One important note: You can't listen to Sirius programming on XM equipment, or vice versa. Meaning you've got to make a choice based on your own personal interests.

CANADIAN SUCCESS?

Will Canadians catch on to the satellite wave? If numbers from the U.S. are any indication, the answer is likely yes.

About three years after launching, XM is approaching a subscriber base of six million. Sirius has three million listeners on board.

While it's fair to expect the subscriber rate in Canada will reach about 10% of those numbers, Redmond believes it could be even hotter than that.

"Realistically, we look at this as probably closer to 15% of whatever the U.S. market is," he said. "Retailers have very high expectations ... this is an (electronics) category that has a lot of consumer awareness.

"Early indications are that the demand will be very strong. We're certainly excited about it."

So, too, you'd think, should be sports fans.

It's a buffet line worth at least a visit, even for just one small taste.

XM OR SIRIUS

XM CANADA

Who are they? Brought to Canada by Canadian Satellite Radio, a company involving former Toronto Raptors owner John Bitove.

Sports channels: Home Ice (24-hour hockey station), play-by-play of more than 40 NHL games a week, including all-star game, playoffs and Stanley Cup, Fox Sports Radio, MLB Home Plate (24 hours of baseball news and talk).

Cost: $12.99 per month.

Radios: $79.99-$399.99, for cars, homes and portable use.

SIRIUS CANADA

Who are they?: Partnership between CBC, Standard Radio and the U.S. Sirius Satellite service.

Sports channels: Sirius NFL Radio, ESPN Radio, ESPN News, Hardcore Sports Radio (in partnership with The Score). Will broadcast live coverage of every NFL game plus playoffs and Super Bowl, 30 NHL games a week plus selection of NBA and English Premiership soccer games, Wimbledon, NCAA football/basketball.

Cost: $14.99 per month.

Radios: $69.99-$199.99.


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