Commentary: Why we miss Bob Costas at the Winter Olympics
Hello, 911? I’d like to report a missing person.
Last name C-O-S-T-A-S. Short, extremely white male. Dark hair, pink eyes. Brilliant sportscaster with a boyish demeanor.
How long has he been missing? Ever since these Olympics began. I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am, but a Winter Olympics without Costas is like Christmas without a Claus …
Oh, well, I tried. In fact, I’ve been calling 911 nightly since the Olympics began. I miss Bob Costas, odd as that may seem. I’ve kidded the plucky sportscaster for years — his hair care, his outsize moxie, his famous battle with those bunny eyes.
On the air, the sportscaster often seems to ooze ego, though those who work with him insist that he was always a decent colleague and a very good guy.
Now, he’s gone, apparently a voluntary departure, though I have my concerns. After hosting 11 Olympics, he was more than due to sit by his own fireplace and soak in the Games like the rest of us, a dog and a decent glass of Pinot by his side.
Yet, for many viewers, the feeling persists: Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
“If the Olympics occur but are not announced by Bob Costas, did they make a sound?” tweeted journalist Molly Beck in a flurry of social media posts questioning his absence.
“Come back please,” wrote another viewer on social media. “It’s simply just not the same without you, Mr. Costas.”
And another: “We want Bob! We want Bob! We want Bob! The Olympics aren’t the same without him.”
So, what about Bob?
It’s been a great Olympics so far, with surprising finishes and witty champions who put most pro football and basketball players to shame.
In two days, Adam Rippon made more quotable comments than all the Boston Celtics throughout history. Each interview is almost a graduate course in media relations.
The lesson: Just be yourself.
Indeed, the Olympics are where the greats are made, on the slopes and in the broadcast booth. Jim McKay is remembered as the template of the Olympics studio host, but he seemed to belabor the grandfatherly shtick. At times it was like listening to Walt Disney introduce Tinker Bell.
Costas was always himself — brash, knowledgeable, poised, with an appreciation for the moment. No one, not even the whip-smart Howard Cosell, was faster on his feet in live interviews.
Props to the affable Mike Tirico, who is being fast-tracked. But he is proof that you can be the consummate pro and still come up lacking in certain respects.
Sadly, Costas will probably best be remembered not so much for the decades of first-class sportscasting, but for a stubborn case of pink eye that struck during the Games in Sochi, Russia, and became the talk of the nation.
Here’s what he told the New York Post recently about the end of his Olympics reign: “My attitude is I have had a wonderful ride and so many wonderful things to look back on and so many great things have happened … so when things take another turn in another direction, that’s just the way it goes.”
To me, that doesn’t sound like a voluntary departure. He’s still under contract to NBC but labels himself an “emeritus” now, another term for a star everyone respects but the bosses don’t really know what to do with.
With Costas out, ratings are down, but ratings are always down. Moses himself could host the Oscars, or the Super Bowl, and ratings would slip 6%. There is no changing the slide in Americans’ viewing habits and their inability to sit still for even a moment.
Al Michaels is also MIA from NBC’s otherwise excellent coverage. All Michaels has done is turn “Sunday Night Football” into a ratings juggernaut and the modern equivalent of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Between them, Costas and Michaels have hosted 20 Olympics.
“This was voluntary on both our parts,” Michaels said by phone over the weekend. “Bob had been talking about this for years. This was 1,000% his decision.”
Well, I’m not completely buying it. It’s like benching two Tom Bradys. These days, network sports needs the best of the best more than ever, to weave together these obscure events as viewers duck in and out.
As would be expected, NBC is trying to bleed every buck from its $12-billion Olympics investment. Curling shows up on CNBC, and NBCSN runs wall-to-wall blade sports. The logistics of all this could split a coordinating producer’s head in half.
But don’t overthink it. Don’t press the panic button. Props to the affable Mike Tirico, who is being fast-tracked into NBC’s No.1 sports role. But he is proof that you can be the consummate pro and still come up lacking in certain respects.
Tough biz, right?
In 20 years, Tirico may well generate the same warm-and-fuzzies that Costas and Michaels do now.
Sportscasters are like country doctors or great New York saloons. After 30 years, they’re usually pretty good. After 40 years, they become great.
The finest storytellers don’t really peak till they hit 70, and like Vin Scully, Keith Jackson and Dick Enberg, the best ones perform at the highest level well into their later years.
So, here’s to you, Bob, and an eventual return in 2020. A spry 65, you’re far too young to be anybody’s “emeritus.”
What you are is broadcasting gold.
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