Bob Costas: The Conscience of NBC Sports on Sandusky, Olympics Scandal and, Yep, Being Short
Mired in the ratings cellar, the network has pinned its gold medal hopes on the charming, challenging sportscaster.
This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On June 5, 2011, at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, NBCUniversal presented a whopping $4.38 billion bid for four Olympic Games, the biggest rights package to date (by more than $2 billion) for the world's most popular sporting event. Bob Costas -- NBC's pre-eminent sportscaster, the primetime host of the Games since 1992 and the only on-air personality in the network's 19-person delegation -- was seated smack in the middle of the rectangular table formation, directly across from the IOC's autocratic president, Jacques Rogge. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke introduced Costas, who spoke last.
"He had a yellow piece of paper with a bunch of scribbled notes," says Burke. "The rest of us had typed-out text that we had rehearsed five times. I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, he really hasn't prepared as much as all of us have.' "
Burke needn't have worried.
"He was fantastic," he recalls. "He was able to talk from the heart about what he felt the Olympics meant to people in the U.S. and the unique way that NBC has told the Olympic story over the years. He was far less scripted than we were -- and did far better."
Four hours later, Costas found himself on a corporate jet with his new boss. Burke had replaced Jeff Zucker, whose trajectory at NBC began at the 1988 Seoul Games with a 36-year-old Costas presiding over the network's late-night coverage. Costas and Burke were returning to the States earlier than the rest of the NBC delegation -- Burke for an off-site management meeting, Costas to call a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game for MLB Network.
About an hour into the flight, Burke got the phone call. Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told him the IOC had accepted NBC's bid for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and two more Olympics, keeping the Games at NBC through 2020. "Bob has a pride that goes beyond his role on the broadcast," says Burke. "He helped get it for us."
"We shared a high-five at 40,000 feet," says Costas, dryly. "He leaped out of his seat, and I thought it prudent to leap out of mine." There was a hug.
More than an able pitchman, Costas, for more than three decades, has been the conscience of NBC Sports. And for two decades, he has been the face of the Olympics for U.S. viewers. Beginning July 27 for 17 days, he'll be on the air from London seven days a week, four to five hours a day, delivering his expertise on sports ranging from the 100-meter dash to platform diving. "At his heart, Bob is a storyteller," says Don Ohlmeyer, the former NBC executive who hired Costas in 1980 after noticing him on KMOX radio in St. Louis. "When Michael Phelps is going for his seventh medal, to be able in 35 seconds to deliver a succinct understanding of the importance of the moment, not just in the 200-meter butterfly but the overall context of the Olympics and what he accomplished -- that's what Bob does."
No other U.S. media company has presented more Games; London will be NBC's 13th (the Olympics were first broadcast here in 1960 on CBS). With a domestic audience that can hit more than 30 million each night, the network's multibillion-dollar investment is expected to spring NBC's primetime from the ratings cellar, hit the reset button on the Today show three weeks after an awkward anchor transition from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie and expose the entertainment division's new fall series to more than 200 million potential viewers. But the Olympics are more than a promotional opportunity (analysts expect NBC to lose as much as $200 million on London). Like Sunday Night Football, the Games are inextricably tied to the identity of NBC and, at this moment, serve as the network's life preserver. "The fact that NBC Entertainment hasn't been doing as well as it should," says Burke, "has made it more important to retain the NFL and the Olympics than it otherwise would be. That's definitely true."
But Costas is more than a play-caller or congenial glad-hander. At a time when so much sports journalism toes the line, when LeBron James' 2010 free-agent ESPN infomercial hit a nadir in pandering and a "don't shit where you eat" attitude colors the beat, Costas, 60, is almost singular in his approach. During a Nov. 27 halftime essay on football's "knuckleheads" -- overexuberant players whose elaborate end-zone celebrations (the cha-cha-cha, backflips, even a Plaxico Burress-inspired pantomime of shooting yourself in the leg) have earned their teams penalties -- Costas opined: "We live in a culture that grows more stupid and graceless by the minute. … Is it too much to ask that you confine your buffoonery to situations that don't damage your team?"
Dick Ebersol, who before he resigned in May 2011 was Costas' frequent producer through more than 30 years at NBC, avers that it's easy to be controversial on networks like HBO; not so much at the Peacock. "They don't have a deal with an NFL or an MLB or an NHL," he says. "But Bob was able to have his opinions and to ask the very people that we had billion-dollar contracts with very difficult questions."
Indeed, during a March segment of his NBC Sports Network program Costas Tonight, he pointedly asked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman if the league has gone far enough in providing a "disincentive" to fighting. Less than a year earlier, NBC Sports had finalized a 10-year, $2 billion deal to carry NHL games on NBC and its cable sports arm. "Nobody put a gun to my head and told me I had to go on with him," says Bettman, who has been interviewed numerous times by Costas. "They're legitimate questions. Bob has opinions, but they're based on a thorough analysis and understanding of the subject. If his opinion isn't the same as yours, he respects your right to respond. I've been interviewed by people who, when you give them an answer they don't like, either cut you off or make it contentious. That's not Bob's style."
Costas has been outspoken about the damage steroids have done to baseball. But his early and vociferous disdain for MLB's wild-card system, whereby playoffs that otherwise would be impossible among three division winners are filled out with a wild-card fourth team, was not as universally embraced. In 1994, NBC returned to broadcasting baseball after a four-year hiatus in a joint deal with ABC, and Costas began railing against what he viewed as the inherent unfairness of wild-card teams getting equal weight as division winners. "Here you are in a brand-new relationship with baseball, with everybody happy to be back together, and he would go on for a whole inning about the wild card," laughs Ebersol. "The head of one of our competitors called me up and said, 'How the hell can you let him do that?!' I said: 'He's really good at it. If he annoys some of the people, he's really telling it like it is.' " Surprisingly, longtime MLB commissioner Bud Selig concurs. "I know how much Bob loves the sport," he says. "I know that Bob can be controversial, and he's a man of very, very strong opinions. I've learned to live with that. It sure beats apathy."
At the July 27 Opening Ceremony from London, Costas plans to call out the IOC for denying Israel's request for a moment of silence acknowledging the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Games. On the 40th anniversary of Munich, it's a decision he finds "baffling." When the Israeli delegation enters the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, Costas will stage his own protest: "I intend to note that the IOC denied the request," he says, modulating his voice as if he were on the air. "Many people find that denial more than puzzling but insensitive. Here's a minute of silence right now." Says Ebersol: "There's a reality in business; there were times when I thought he got too forceful. But I'm very proud of the fact that Bob was able to be Bob." By all accounts, Costas' new boss, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, is also letting Bob be Bob. "He does not compromise his question-asking," says Lazarus. "But he does not lead the witness down any path other than the truth."