Bob Costas discusses pro wrestling, the XFL, and that confrontation with Vince McMahon
Bob Costas is a legendary figure in the field of sports broadcasting. For wrestling fans, he's best known from his confrontation with Vince McMahon during a live episode of Costas Now. Despite McMahon’s attempts to intimidate, Costas never broke stride and left McMahon completely infuriated. Costas spoke with SI to discuss his feelings on pro wrestling, memories of Vince McMahon, and the XFL. Costas can be found all summer long on MLB Network, broadcasting games on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
SI.com: You were the face of NBC Sports broadcasting. How did you know to steer clear of the XFL on NBC? And were you impressed by Matt Vasgersian’s work with the XFL on NBC?
Costas: I think it should have been as obvious as steering clear of a dark alley in a dangerous neighborhood. Everything about it screamed to me schlock and crap. Everything that subsequently occurred validated that impression. In fairness, Dick Ebersol never asked me. None of the announcers who were associated with NBC were going to be used on this experiment, so there was never any danger of that.
Also, Matt is an excellent broadcaster and he has a very good sense of humor. Unlike me, for example, where I had a point of view about it and could contribute something, I didn’t live through it. I was on the outside looking in. I didn’t have anything direct to do with it, and didn’t want to. Matt, at that stage of his career, did the smart thing to do. He took a network opportunity, even it was kind of a schlocky product. He had first-hand stories to tell of what [NBC Sports chairman] Dick Ebsersol may have been saying in one ear and Vince McMahon may have been saying in the other about their respective visions of what this league and what these broadcasts should be about, and Matt was being pushed and pulled in opposite directions. At one point, Matt feared that he might not just be fired or demoted, but might be bumped off, Mafia style. Matt may have embellished that story for effect, but it was to good effect.
SI.com: Are you surprised by the evolution of professional wrestling?
Costas: Vince McMahon is obviously, outside of the XFL, enormously successful. When he was first breaking into wrestling and his dad was a major figure in the sport, wrestling was divided into a whole bunch of regions, and wrestling was not the major business success that he turned it into. Vince pulled it all together. He either outfought or bought-out all of his competitors, and he became the driving force behind wrestling. I was always a wrestling fan from the time that I was a kid. I would watch Haystacks Calhoun and Bruno Sammartino in black and white on Saturdays when I was nine years old. Then, in the 80’s, with Hulk Hogan and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff – that whole era, with the “Million Dollar Man” – I loved it. I thought it was funny as could be. Then it took a certain turn around the turn of the century that wasn’t this sort of funny, slapstick, soap opera type of thing. It wasn’t the winking, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. It took on this nasty edge, and I thought, it’s one thing to be irreverent and edgy – I can recite every George Carlin or Richard Prior routine, and I’m from the Saturday Night Live generation, the David Letterman generation, so I know edgy and irreverent. The WWE represented comedy for people who had been hit in the head too many times. That stuff was really low rent, and I didn’t like it, period. I don’t think I should have to apologize for that, and I don’t think that means I was out of touch. I was perfectly in touch. I saw it for what it was and I said so.
SI.com: You and Vince McMahon had a memorable scene on your HBO show, Costas Now, where McMahon did everything possible–including poking you in the chest on live television–to intimidate you. Was it difficult to remain composed during that interview?
Costas: Vince did come forward in his seat and jab a finger at me, and he was very angry. And it was live, not just because it was HBO, but there were no commercials and no interruptions. It was nearly a half hour of unremitting tension. I knew what he was trying to do. I never thought, and maybe I’m just a little dense, that he was going to take a swing at me or anything like that. I thought he was trying to intimidate me and throw me off my game, and he became actually angrier when that wasn’t working. Vince – whom I get a kick out of – is a skilled performer, I have nothing against him, and I’ve actually shared some laughs with him, both before and after that. Vince likes to say that, if I were bigger, he would have kicked my ass. There was only one person who got his ass kicked that night, and it wasn’t me.
SI.com: Are you surprised at the amount of media coverage that pro wrestling, particularly WWE, has garnered over the past five years?
Costas: I haven’t really paid close attention to it. I’ve sort of drifted away from it. I wasn’t even aware that what is still called mainstream media pays much attention to it. If it does, they’re welcome to it.
SI.com: You mentioned that you were a passionate wrestling fan when you were younger. Who were your favorites? Did you ever cover an event?
Costas: I loved Haystacks Calhoun, I loved Bobo Brazil, I loved Antonino Rocca. I grew up in the late 1950’s and the early 60’s on Long Island. When I got to St. Louis, which is a big wrestling town, right out of college, there was a program on television called Wrestling at the Chase, which came from the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. That was enormously popular in St. Louis, and it was hosted by [former MLB player and broadcaster] Joe Garagiola’s brother, Mickey Gariogola, and I did go to shows in St. Louis. In fact, I saw Hulk Hogan vs. Paul Orndorff for the belt in St. Louis. We actually had a whole tongue-in-cheek thing going on KMOX Radio leading up to this match, and Dan Dierdorf and I broadcast the match live on radio, and this would have been in 1985 or ’86. This stuff was good-natured, tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink stuff. The villains were sort of cartoon villains, and the women were damsels in distress–not demeaned and objectified the way they were in the early 2000s.