SOCHI -- Of the many boldfaced names floating through the hotel here housing NBC's on-air talent for the Sochi Games -- I can confirm Scott Hamilton is as cheerful at breakfast as he is on the air and Johnny Weir is quite skilled with a cappuccino machine -- the most famous name of all has never competed in nor covered a previous Winter Olympics.
Maria Sharapova was hired by NBC to serve as an Olympic correspondent, though the definition and responsibilities of an NBC Olympic correspondent range from Ryan Seacrest-level reporting to Mary Carillo. Sharapova, in an interview with SI.com on Friday, said she approached her NBC gig more as an ambassador for Sochi than as a sports television assignment or tryout for a future broadcasting gig.
"We never had a proper conversation about what my job description would be here but I had a lot of experiences in my childhood in this city. So on a larger scale I wanted to showcase the city to an American audience and take them around certain spots that I remembered from my childhood," said Sharapova, who was born in Siberia and moved to Sochi as a child before eventually settling in Florida at the age of 7. "I wanted [viewers] to experience Russian cuisine and give them some lighthearted pieces on the city... It's not just about television for me here; it's much more important."
Among her NBC segments: Touring Russia House in Sochi with Ato Boldon and traveling around the city with Carillo. As far as Boldon is concerned, Sharapova could have a big future in television. "Oh, there is no doubt she could do TV in a second," said Boldon, who is working as a correspondent for NBC in Sochi and is a sensational track and field analyst for the network. "The camera loves her and she is smart and very articulate. She is not too self-absorbed and I think has a good sense of who she is and who she is not. I remember once hearing her say she wanted to be a Bond girl. I doubt she would say that now."
Added NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell, who hired Sharapova: "Maria has tremendous potential in television when her tennis career ends and I think she'll have opportunities to consider beyond the tennis announcing booth."
Sharapova said she wanted to bring a "warmth" to the American audience about Sochi because of all the questions leading up to the games. I asked her if she thought the initial Western press coverage of Sochi -- filled with stories of incomplete hotel accommodations, gay rights issues and security worries -- were fair.
"Everyone that I have talked to has been pleasantly surprised because everyone has been hearing a lot of talk about all those issues," she said. "We can start with security: I think everyone has been thinking about this since they got here but security has been strict but very fair. I think everyone understands you want to feel safe and the committee has provided that. I think the lines have even been smoother [to get to and enter venues] than in London. This is also one of the most compact Olympics, so there's not much traffic."
Though Sharapova was only contracted for the first week of the games, NBC got a lot out of its correspondent in a short amount of time. The NBC Sports Network aired the piece she and Carillo did on touring Sochi less than 24 hours after it was initially shown on NBC. Sharapova was also part of the opening ceremony as one of the torch runners; she carried the torch into Fisht Olympic Stadium before handing it to Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.
Said Carillo: "I love that old Ethel Merman quote about the young Mary Martin: 'She's okay, if you like talent.' Maria's a pro. She's been very successful and famous for a long time and has an enormous amount of style and self-possession. The Sharapova brand is global and growing. If she ever wanted to shift to television she could, easily and well. My guess is that she will go more in the way of Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Andre Agassi -- champions who have spent years building the rest of their lives around their passions such as clothing design, school building, etc. Athletic excellence as a springboard, not an anchor."
Sharapova said she enjoyed her experience with NBC and gained insight about television production. Beyond that, she made no declaration about a television career, and at 26 and the world's fifth-ranked tennis player, she's years away from making a decision about what she does after tennis. On Sunday she left the Olympics to begin training for her current job. She is scheduled to compete in a WTA event in Indian Wells, Ca., which begins on March 5.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. Cyd Ziegler of Outsports has an indepth look at the media rollout for Mike Sam's announcement. The defensive lineman from Missouri spoke publicly about his sexual orientation on Sunday and could become the first openly gay player in the National Football League. This piece gives you a real sense of how media entities are chosen and courted for major news when the subject controls the news.
1a. Sensational work here by ESPN's Outside The Lines' Chris Connelly, who asked Sam direct, open-ended questions so the subject could expand for viewers. Check out the interview at the top.
1b. The first days of the Sochi Olympics have been a mixed bag for NBC. The opening ceremony averaged 31.7 million viewers, which was down only three percent in viewership (32.7 million) from Vancouver. It's worth keeping in mind that Sochi is nine hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. For some perspective, the opening ceremony from Turin in 2006 drew 22.2 million viewers. NBC's Saturday primetime Olympics rating more than tripled the rating of ABC, CBS and Fox combined, but was also down in viewership from Vancouver. NBC's primetime coverage on Saturday night averaged 25.1 million viewers, up from the opening Saturday in Turin (23.2 million viewers). The five highest-rated markets were 1. Minneapolis; 2. Portland; 3. Salt Lake City; 4. Denver; 5. Milwaukee.
1c. Based on the unscientific feedback from my Twitter followers, the NBC Sports Network figure skating announcing team of Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski has been a big hit.
1d. Sports Business Journal reporter Tripp Mickle reports the total number of Olympic sponsors advertising during the Sochi Games has risen from less than 10 to more than 15. Here's the list.
1e. NBC provided me with the same statement they sent NPR's David Fokenflick on why they edited the address of IOC president Thomas Bach during the opening ceremony. "The IOC's president was edited for time, as were other speeches, but his message got across very clearly," said an NBC Sports spokesperson.
2. CBS landing the NFL's Thursday night package was not a major surprise, as NFL officials privately said they wanted to bring the package to a network (and not a cable entity). By choosing CBS, the NFL could easily double its current average Thursday night game viewership, which is currently at eight million viewers. As part of the one-year deal, CBS will televise the eight Thursday games. Those games will also be simulcast on NFL Network. There will be eight other games airing on the NFL Network, and two of those games will be played on Dec. 20.
CBS said it will handle the production of all 16 games and has already assigned its lead announcing team, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, to the Thursday night telecast. Simms and Nantz will then work selective Sundays for CBS, meaning the longstanding team of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts could get bumped up to the top spot on certain Sundays (CBS should do this.) Multiple reports put the deal at about $240 million dollars for the year, with the NFL holding the option to extend the package to 2015. The New York Times reported that had NBC won the bid the Sunday night team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth would have been part of that network's plan for Thursdays.
NFL Network hosts and analysts will be featured in the pregame, halftime and postgame shows along with CBS Sports announcers. Reached on Sunday, a CBS spokesperson said they are still finalizing plans for its Thursday night coverage regarding the possibility of a separate pregame show.
2a. Ed Sherman of The Sherman Report had a Q&A with CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus on the new Thursday Night NFL package.
3. Some leftovers from the Super Bowl ratings:
3a. The halftime show featuring Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers drew 115.3 million viewers, topping the 110.8 million who watched Beyonce last year and the prior record of 114.0 million set by Madonna two years ago.
3b. The top-rated TV markets for the Super Bowl (in order): Kansas City; Seattle; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Tulsa; Las Vegas; Portland; Knoxville; Jacksonville; Denver and Tampa.
3c. The Super Bowl pregame show averaged 23.1 million viewers, up 20 percent from over last year's CBS pregame. The show peaked at 68.4 million viewers from 6:00 p.m. ET to kickoff.
3d. The Super Bowl postgame show drew 65.4 million people.
3e. Fox said its livestream of the Super Bowl was watched by an average audience of 528,000 viewers per minute.
3f. The NFL Network averaged 226,000 viewers in primetime during Super Bowl week, the most-watched Super Bowl week ever on NFL Network.
3g. Fox Sports Live averaged 282,000 viewers following the Super Bowl, setting a Sunday night record for that show and more than quadrupling its launch-to-date Sunday night average (64,000).
4. Fox Sports 1's Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole are reporting nightly for Fox Sports Live during the Sochi Games. Fox Sports also has a number of former Olympic medalists as analysts in Sochi, including Michelle Kwan, Picabo Street, and Chris Chelios.
4a. ESPN will air more than 200 exclusive regular-season and conference championship college baseball games across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3 and ESPNEWS, breaking the previous record of 151 matchups set last season.
4b. TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley on the LeBron James versus Kevin Durant matchup: "The reason they can't beat Miami is LeBron James is the only guy who has a chance at guarding Durant. That's the biggest problem. If you're going to beat Miami, you see [Pacers forward] David West and [Pacers center] Roy Hibbert owned them [and] beat them like a drum down low. The problem with Oklahoma City not having a low post scorer is you're not going to beat Miami on the perimeter. LeBron James is such a unique player. He's the only person big enough and strong enough to make Durant's life a nightmare."
4c. Georgetown's victory over Michigan State on Feb. 1 averaged 539,000 viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game to date on FOX Sports 1.
4e. Baseball writer Rob Neyer, who has worked for ESPN and SB Nation, has joined FOXSports.com as a senior baseball editor.
4f. ESPN feature producer Danny Aruda, on filming in Afghanistan.
4g. A 20-year-old college journalism student started the Sochi problems Twitter feed.
5. This week's sports pieces of note:
•Great work by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Brady McCollough, who traveled to Magnitogorsk, Russia for a profile of Evgeni Malkin.
•A terrific piece by the Wall Street Journal on why Norway dominates the Winter Olympics.
•Here's John Branch's piece for the New York Times on Michael Sam.
•Eli Saslow, writing for ESPN The Magazine, on Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman.
•Behind The Sochi Curtain: Yahoo! reporters Martin Rogers and Alan Springer traveled to Russia during July and September 2013 to examine some larger issues surrounding the Sochi Games.
•Grantland's Michael McCambridge re-examines George Plimpton's Harper's Magazine piece on the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•Does a more equal marriage mean less sex? The New York Times examines.
•The Economist's obituary for Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant.
•Fascinating piece by Foreign Policy on the troubled tenure of the United States Ambassador to Russia.