Costas Shows He Is the Real McKay
With only a few days left in the Olympic Games last week, broadcaster Bob Costas took a brief break, walked off the set in Barcelona and made one of his infrequent phone calls back to the United States. Costas, the host of NBC Sports’ prime-time telecast from Spain, had tried and failed to reach Jim McKay a few days before the Opening Ceremonies. He wanted to thank ABC’s veteran voice of Olympics past for his kind words of praise in a profile of Costas that had appeared recently in Sports Illustrated.
As usual, McKay was on the road when the first call came in, so Costas left a message on the answering machine at McKay’s home in Monkton, Md., and told him he’d try again. Finally, late in the Games, Costas connected, and what he heard from his colleague warmed his heart.
“He was, as always, very supportive, very classy, because that’s what he is,” Costas recalled late Wednesday night, 24 hours after he’d returned from Spain to his home in the St. Louis suburbs. “He said he felt we were doing a fine job, and of course that meant so much coming from him. And for him to say what he did about me in the magazine even before I did the Games also meant a great deal to me.”
In that telephone call last week, McKay also echoed what most of America had been reading from critics. There was almost universal praise for Costas, the versatile 40-year-old announcer with a nose for news, a delicious sense of humor and an interviewing style that almost always includes tough questions drawing out provocative answers.
Certainly his neighbors back home were most appreciative of Costas’ efforts. After his wife, Randy, had pulled out of the driveway to pick him up at the airport Tuesday night, they pounded a sign into his front lawn. It read, “Welcome Home Bob, You Won The Gold!”
Sitting in his living room, sipping iced tea, Costas described his Olympic experience as “the most intense I’ve ever had in this business,” and easily the most gratifying.
He went to Barcelona on June 29 to begin final preparations for 16 days of prime-time coverage. He holed up in his hotel room for 16 hours a day of reading and studying tapes, cramming for the most important final examination of his career. And when the Games began, his entire existence revolved around the broadcasts.
He was at NBC’s studios in the Olympic broadcast center every day from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. He’d return to his room at the Feria Palace Hotel across the street to read for a few hours before closing the blackout curtains at 9 a.m., disconnecting the telephone and getting eight hours of sleep. He’d wake again at 5 p.m., shave and shower and start the entire cycle all over again.
His contact with the outside world was mostly limited to phone calls home to his son, Keith, 6, and daughter Taylor, 3, and Randy, who left Barcelona after the first week of the Games. He did no interviews, generally avoided reading reviews of his work in the American press, ate his meals in the NBC commissary and hardly ever left the broadcast center.
“There were no peripheral concerns, and that made it so much easier,” said Costas. “Toward the end, I’d see people on the 12th and 13th day and they’d ask, ‘How do you feel? How are you holding up?’ and I felt great. Except for the first and last Sunday when I had to do two shows, I was never tired.
“I think it was a combination of adrenaline, knowing it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you gear up for that. And everyone you worked with was geared up for the same thing. So many people would go the extra mile. If they could do something to make it even 1 percent better than it already was, people would do it. You’d say to a researcher ‘I need this one tiny little piece of information,’ and they’d knock themselves dead trying to get it for you.”
There also is no doubt in Costas’ mind about the television MVP in these Games. “The most important guy there was Terry O’Neil,” Costas said of NBC’s co-executive producer. “This guy had it figured out. It was all organized to the last detail. “We trusted each other’s abilities and intentions a hundred percent. If I said I wanted to talk about Gwen Torrence, he might say, ‘Well, it really doesn’t play into this right now, but I’ll give you time tomorrow night to develop it.’ I believed it, and if he told me to save it, that was the end of it. The next night, he was true to his word. We had zero disagreements. Zero.
“These were the best working circumstances over a sustained period of time I’ve ever been around.”
Costas said he learned from McKay the value of understatement at times, the importance of treating his role as an Olympian storyteller with the pace of a marathon runner rather than as a sprinter.
“Everything in the Olympics is dramatic. ... You can’t use the most extreme adjective every time. You couldn’t have a sense of urgency every minute. You’d just wear the audience down.”
For the most part, the audience persevered. NBC’s ratings tailed off, as expected, after the first week of gymnastics, swimming and diving, all with high appeal among women viewers. But the network’s final number -- a 17.5 rating overall -- was solid, and well above the 15.3 it had guaranteed advertisers.
And now Costas finds himself in an enviable position, the dominant television sports voice of the day. He has just over a year remaining on his five-year NBC contract, and his talents are certain to be coveted by all the networks.
In the past, Costas has been quoted as saying he prefers doing baseball play-by-play to studio work, at least the numbing grind of hosting the network’s NFL and NBA pregame shows week after week. NBC no longer televises major-league baseball, and Costas said the studio shows give him little time to “get across who you are as a broadcaster. The problem with the usual studio show is that the time is so short, you can’t really be yourself, you can’t weave your own web.
“Do I miss baseball? Yes. But sometimes that comes out sounding like a complaint. It’s not. I have no complaint. What could NBC do, commit financial suicide (by outbidding CBS, the rights holder through 1993)? But I do miss the vehicle that I believe is best for me.
“That was the best thing about the Olympics. I had the time and the opportunity to have an impact. I’m eternally grateful to Terry and Dick (Ebersol, president of NBC Sports who co-produced the Olympics with O’Neil). They gave me a chance not just to go from A to Z, but to let me do important pieces, journalistic things, observations, the scene setters while still being true to the notion of getting the action on the air. They gave me enough space to move around in. They did right by me a hundred percent.”
For now Costas will continue to work on NBC’s NFL and NBA programming, as well as his non-sports “Later with Bob Costas” show and a nationally syndicated radio sports interview show. He believes that in Major League Baseball’s next contract negotiations over rights fees, NBC once again will have a piece of the baseball pie now split by CBS and ABC-owned ESPN. And while he says “anything is conceivable” concerning his future, “I’d hate to leave NBC. I have a lot of loyalty to these people. I’m grateful to them for what they’ve done for my career.”
The ideal job? Costas said it would include baseball play-by-play, some type of sports hosting role, though not necessarily in a pregame or halftime format, one that would allow longer examinations of the major issues in sports. He’d love to do the Olympics again, and he’d like to continue with “Later.”
“I think the best thing for me right now,” he said, “is to slip into the background for a while, let the dust settle and see what situation offers me the best combination of things.”