July 18th, 2010

The Story Behind Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

For those watching from the outside, the Sirius XM fantasy sports channel might have seemed to develop somewhat slowly and quietly — perhaps even to the point that it caught some by surprise. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, however.

“It’s been a great passion of mine and Matt Deutsch’s forever,” Steve Cohen, Sirius XM’s senior VP of sports programming told FSB.com in an interview recently. “We’ve been talking about (a channel) for several years.”

Deutsch is the new channel’s programming director, and Cohen said the two of them finally got approval from their bosses and set to work on a lineup. The first two shows came easily. The XM side of the company had a history with RotoWire, dating back to the latter’s four-year run XM’s MLB Home Plate channel, which made that an easy early call.

On the Sirius side, John Hansen of FantasyGuru.com and Adam Caplan of Scout.com had a presence on the NFL channel. Cohen said that the success of Hansen’s show helped display the desire for fantasy sports programming, as the audience reacted strongly to the expansion from one episode a week to two. That served as a sure sign that Sirius XM had to “keep building on this.”

“If you’re a good sports programmer, you’re listening to your subscribers and your listeners,” Cohen said. “You knew there was a hunger for more.”

So Fantasy Sports Radio (Channel 147 on XM, 211 on Sirius for subscribers to “Best of XM” package) locked in RotoWire and moved Hansen over. Cohen also said that he began talking with fantasy-industry veteran Scott Engel back in the fall about a NASCAR show, and a relationship dating back more than 20 years easily led to a deal. Other notable names and outlets (as we’ve reported here before) joined a roster that, interestingly, also includes former athletes and a GM-turned-analyst.

Steve Phillips, who used to run the Mets’ front office before joining ESPN’s baseball crew, opened a nightly show with the channel’s launch. As the seasons change, the lineup will also include former NBA guard Dennis Scott and former NHL star Jeremy Roenick.

Of course, the biggest coup on that front when you combine name recognition and popularity of the sport, is Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Not only is he among the league’s top young running backs, but Jones-Drew is a favorite of fantasy players simply for his production and an athlete well-known for “getting” fantasy.

“Maurice has been a mainstay on NFL radio since he was coming out of UCLA,” Cohen said, citing a rookie diary that the former Bruin did for Sirius as a new pro. “We only wanted one player to do a fantasy football show for us. When the opportunity came up, I called his representative. It’s going to be something that really hasn’t been done before.”

A natural skepticism often creeps for fantasy players when athletes, celebrities and/or “traditional” analysts try to talk fantasy. Cohen, however, is a fantasy veteran himself, having served as the “Injury Guru” on the original staff of fantasy writers for ESPN.com back in the 1990s and contributing analysis and advice in a variety of other ways. He calls the contributions of these former players and scouts “invaluable.”

“Fantasy isn’t far from reality,” Cohen said. “These guys are students of the game.”

In the case of Phillips, Cohen points out that the former front-office man spent years studying prospects (and also been playing fantasy baseball for a while). With Roenick, “all he’s doing is watching hockey.”
Cohen says it’s generally easier for such longtime players as Roenick and Scott to pick up little details about the players such as who’s slowing down or who’s taking plays off.

Additionally, these guys won’t be left on their own. Sirius XM hasn’t announced the full lineup of co-hosts, but those analysts will be paired with fantasy folks.

As for what else lies ahead, Cohen said much of that will depend on subscriber demand. He did say that they put a premium on fantasy outlets that could change with the seasons, addressing the sports in view rather than sticking to one area year-round.

That said, anyone in the fantasy sports industry knows that consumers — at least a portion of the market, and generally the serious portion that spends some money — have come to expect info and analysis in and out of season. It’s easy to imagine the Fantasy Guru show running its football talk all year, and there’s plenty of room for further year-round programming in fantasy football and baseball. (Basketball and hockey don’t bring nearly as big an audience.)

In addition to the Times Square mock draft event scheduled for Wednesday, the channel also plans to go heavy with mocks as football season approaches, involving various hosts and perhaps listeners as well.

Here’s guessing that Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio has no trouble finding a big enough audience. This kind of treatment was overdue for a growing and influential consumer base, and outside of BlogTalkRadio’s Fantasy Sports Channel, fantasy has seemed relatively ignored on the radio.