“Here is what I have understood the most in this role—everybody cares,” says Mike Tirico of the Olympic hosting job. “Whether it is your country, your political view or the sport you love the most, the platform of the Olympics is so large compared to a Thursday Night Football game or any other event I have been a part of in the past. When you say something on this stage, the attention changes because it attracts so many viewers, because it is 18 consecutive nights of primetime which you don’t have in any other form of television. I knew that going in, and I have experienced it first hand in that every comment gets placed under a stronger microscope than anything else you may have said before in the past. It has been eye-opening for me but I love it and that is what I signed up for, and hopefully that is why they put me here.”
As he concludes his debut run as the host of NBC’s primetime Olympics coverage, Tirico has provided the company with exactly what it wanted in the host chair: a comfortable pilot for viewers. He came prepared for every broadcast, he seamlessly moved the production along given all his reps on television and his skill set and makeup is such that he allowed those who he is interviewing to be the dominant voice. His interviews with U.S. alpine stars Mikaela Shiffrin (on Friday night) and Lindsey Vonn (on Saturday night) were a perfect example of that.
What Tirico did not do was venture to the same places former host Bob Costas did. He is not someone who will offer a long commentary on Russian state-sponsored doping, the IOC’s cowardice, or how geopolitical actors try to use the Olympics for political gain. The truth is that those kind of questions during an Olympics are not for everyone. Since 1976, there have only been 10 people in America who have hosted the primetime coverage of the Olympic games: Costas, Jim McKay, Bryant Gumbel, Paula Zahn, Tim McCarver, Greg Gumbel, Jim Nantz, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Tirico—and most of the names on the list were hosts for one Olympic cycle only.
When I spoke to Tirico this week from NBC’s compound at the International Broadcasting Centre at the PyeongChang Games, I told him I wished he had asked figure skater Adam Rippon a direct question about his feelings on Vice President Mike Pence during an interview Tirico conducted with Rippon early in the Games rather than make it a part of a much longer inquiry.
“To the specifics of Adam, I did not have to go there at all,” Tirico said. “I could have kept it just to the competition or his performance. I fully understand that no matter how you ask that question, it will be interpreted differently depending on people’s political point of view. So instead of taking the political point of the question, I wanted to ask about the individual, the athlete and how the entire conversation about him coming out, around the conversation with the Vice Presidents office and would or would their not be a meeting. I wanted to find out how it impacted Adam here now that he had competed.
“I am trying to measure the value of my question on a scale of 1-10 as far as difficulty? No. You are not coming to put me at a journalism school. I have done that at the best journalism school in the country. I am here to get the opinions of the athletes. Let them talk. The issue was there. I could have dumped it very easily. I didn’t and tried to do with without being political about it because you could have two listeners in two separate bedrooms in one house and they would interpret the question differently.”
His answer was interesting and appreciated because it provides insight into the tightrope Olympic hosts have to walk. Tirico said the most challenging moment of his first experience as the primetime Olympic host was the sheer number of hours (6 or 7) on the air each day and adjusting to a truly live Olympics. He has had more reps this Olympics than Costas did regarding pivoting from one event to the next. “The assignment of the role pushed me through any fatigue or malaise,” Tirico said. “I felt excited and enthused getting off the air every day. That was better than I thought it would be. It was a fun challenge. Look, live sports is where it is at. People are coming to see action with athletes. It is a little different vehicle for the prime-time host.”
Tirico said each day he watched a rebroadcast of NBC primetime show to self-evaluate. He will do an even bigger deep-dive after the Games have concluded. “That is in no way for vanity but to see if we are covering the right things for the viewers,” Tirico said. “Am I giving too much information or not enough information bridging from event to event? You always like to see how those things are coming from a TV even though you have a sense and feel for it.”
His most memorable on-air moment of the Games, he said, was last Wednesday night for the United States win over Canada in the women’s gold medal game. He said he had followed the team closely and had done some pre-Olympic events with them in West Hollywood and Utah. “We went to it live during the prime-plus show after Lindsay Vonn and Shiffrin in the super combined and stayed with all the way through until the end of the shootout. Rebecca Chatman, our producer, counted me off the air just as the traditional Stanley Cup-type family photo was being taken. It could not have been better timing or a better moment no matter what time it aired in the States.”
For those interested; Tirico’s daily schedule saw him get up at 5 a.m., arrive at the International Broadcasting Centre at 6:30 a.m. and attend a daily production meeting at 7:30 a.m. As part of his preparation, he’d read clips from the previous day's events. He’d usually be on the air 10 a.m. local time. He said that Costas, his predecessor, called and texted both before the start and during the Games to wish him luck. Tirico said they have been friends for some time and that this year has probably brought them closer given they have now shared one of the more unique jobs in sports television. Costas’s Olympics career ended at 12 Olympics, beginning in 1988 as NBC’s late-night host in Seoul and finishing in Rio in 2016.
NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus confirmed in this space last week that Tirico is the Olympic host heading forward and this was not an audition for future Games. (Said Lazarus: “This is not a training ground. This is not an audition. This is not a tryout. Mike is our primetime host.”) Tirico approached the assignment the same way. “I didn’t approach this with any of the feelings that this is a tryout,” he said. “I was approached about this when Bob decided his run was done and it was pretty clear they were not throwing me in for a couple of weeks to try out and see if this would work. There was an investment and connection with the product and I felt that all the way through from them.”
As for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Tirico said he has been to the city only once—he was part of ABC/ESPN golf coverage there in the 1990s. He says he plans to take a vacation in Tokyo over the next two years in addition to traveling to Japan with NBC Sports officials prior to the Tokyo Games. Given the amount of attention on the position, I wondered how much exposure Tirico had to critiques on his performance from those on social media or who write about broadcasting.
“You never call the dry cleaner when they do a nice job on your shirt,” Tirico said. “You only reach out when you want to say, “Hey, I think there is a spot; can you do this again?” I try to use that as the scales of justice for criticism. But I have heard from a lot of the people I have come across in the business who had nice things to say about what we have done and about how I have done, and I really take that to heart. These are people I worked with for 25 years and peers at other networks. I have not scoured social media for praise or criticism. Here is the one thing I was confident about coming in and I am thoroughly convinced after the experience: When you are on primetime TV for 18 straight nights for a minimum of five hours a night, it won’t be perfect, and it won’t make everyone happy.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week.)
1. The ESPN broadcaster Cari Champion, who will make her debut on March 12 as a new host on SportsNation, was a recent guest on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast where she was unequivocal in her feelings regarding the comments from Fox News host Laura Ingraham about LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
“I was furious, I was angry, I was pissed off,” says Champion. “I was all the things that everybody else was that watched that. She essentially to me said, 'Shut up, n-word.' I really didn’t like how it came across. It hit my spirits really, really hard. Because that is exactly what LeBron was talking about the entire car ride. That’s exactly what K.D. was talking about the entire car ride.”
As part of the “Rolling with the Champion” series Champion hosts (it features Champion interviewing NBA players as she drives them around) for the Uninterrupted platform, Champion drove for more than an hour with Durant and James last January 14
in Akron for an extended interview. It was just a remote camera inside the car with James, Durant and Champion, with cameras in cars in front and back of her car following them.
“I’m nervous as hell about an accident,” Champion says. “Somebody gets injured and it’s, 'Cari has ruined the NBA!”'
As part of the podcast, Champion discussed how the interview with James and Durant came together; her reaction to Ingraham saying James and Durant should “shut up and dribble” and “must they run their mouths like that” following the NBA players’ criticism of President Donald Trump; what the conversation was like after the cameras stopped rolling; how she felt about her role on First Take, specially the limitations of being able to get her voice into the show; hanging out with Tupac Shakur while growing up in Los Angeles; her longtime friendship with Jemele Hill and why she thinks it did not work out at SportsCenter; her confirming Hill left SportsCenter and was not pushed out; what comes with being a prominent African-American woman in sports TV; working with young woman of color who want to enter sports broadcasting and journalism and much more.
1:50: How the car ride between LeBron James and Kevin Durant in Akron came together.
6:10: How Champion prepped for the interview.
10:20: LeBron James’s comments on Trump and Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s commentary on those comments.
22:40: Her new job as a host of SportsNation.
28:00: Her role on First Take and figuring out an avenue to get her voice out beyond a moderator.
38:10: Her friendship with Jemele Hill and why Hill ultimately left SportsCenter.
40:20: The backlash for Hill online and elsewhere.
47:20: Spending a day with Tupac Shakur when she was 18.
52:00: Her role as a prominent women of color in sports broadcasting and how often younger women of color reach out to her for advice on getting into sports media.
1a. I’ve been told that a number of female employees at ESPN have started sharing their salaries privately with each other in an effort to get a better sense of the company’s overall salary structure—and to better get leverage when contracts come up. While talent agents have a good idea of the financial marketplace at sports networks, the on-air talent and producers are not always aware of who is making what at a company. This will be especially valuable for ESPN female on-air reporters and commentators come contract time as traditionally males in those positions have been paid far more than women in Bristol (in some cases, I’ve heard, six figures more), even with ESPN’s leadership position of giving women prominent front-facing roles.
2. Here were the top-rated cities for NBC’s and NBCSN’s Olympic coverage from Feb. 8 to Feb. 24:
1. Salt Lake City (21.3 household rating)
2. Denver (20.4)
3. Minneapolis (17.8)
4. Milwaukee (17.3)
5. San Diego (17.1)
5. Kansas City (17.1)
7. Seattle (16.8)
8. Sacramento (16.7)
9. Portland, OR (16.6)
10. Austin (16.0)
11. West Palm Beach (15.7)
12. Buffalo (15.4)
13. Richmond (14.9)
14. Washington DC (14.7)
15. Ft. Myers (14.6)
16. St. Louis (14.5)
17. Columbus, OH (14.4)
18. Albuquerque (14.3)
19. Dayton, OH (14.2)
19. Los Angeles (14.2)
Some other major cities:
27. Chicago (12.8)
29. Boston (12.6)
42. New York (11.4)
2a. Last Wednesday’s women’s hockey gold medal game on NBCSN drew a total audience delivery of 3.7 million viewers, including streaming and NBC airing shootout. The NBCSN-only telecast of 2.9 million viewers was the largest overnight audience ever for any network. The men’s gold medal curling match on Friday drew 1.58M viewers and 78,000 live streamers from 1 to 4 a.m. ET, the second-largest overnight viewership for the network behind the women’s hockey game.
2b. NBC said PyeongChang Olympic viewership on NBC/NBCSN peaked at 29.7 million on the opening Sunday (Feb. 11) from 9:45-10 p.m. ET for the women’s free skate in the team event and women’s slopestyle snowboarding.
2c. Some serious homerism (but a very fun call) from Chad Salmela for U.S. cross-country skiing team’s historic gold medal in the women’s team sprint, the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing.
2d. On the issue of co-hosting the Opening ceremony, Tirico said he’d love to do it again: “I enjoyed it. I am a political science major in addition to broadcast journalism. I loved the things that came with it and I am sure I learned a lot so I would be better the next time around. I fully embrace the next time around if I get the opportunity to do it.”
2e. Slate’s Josh Levin analyzed NBC’s coverage, with an emphasis on the Alpine competition.
2f. NBC said that PyeongChang Games women’s hockey analyst AJ Mleczko will serve as an analyst for its March 6 broadcast between the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins on NBCSN.
2g. During our interview, Tirico praised the other NBC Olympic hosts—Ahmed Fareed, Rebecca Lowe, Carolyn Manno and Liam McHugh—for an esprit de corps among the hosts. He said they’d routinely send each other notes when they liked something they’ve seen during their respective broadcasts.
2h. Lazarus said in a statement on Sunday that NBC finished the PyeongChang Games with more than $920 million in national ad sales, a Winter Games record. He said the company added more than $20 million after the Games started.
3. More than a dozen current and ex-employees characterized the Dallas Mavericks hostile work environment—ranging from sexual harassment to domestic violence—as an “open secret” in a special investigation published by Sports Illustrated earlier this week. One of the forceful NBA voices to offer commentary following the allegations by SI was ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who hosts “The Jump,” which will be expanded to an hour every weekday, from 3-4 pm ET, beginning Mar. 12. On Friday I spoke to Nichols about her response to the investigation and the importance of this story.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
•At Japan’s suicide cliffs, he's walked more than 600 people back from the edge. A sobering piece from Jonathan Kaiman of the Los Angeles Times.
•From one of the best writers in the country—The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow: Is Anyone Listening?
• This Is the Worst Roommate Story You’ll Ever Read. From New York Magazine’s William Brennan.
•GQ’s Zach Baron profiled actor Brendan Fraser.
•The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb on Black Panther and the invention of Africa.
•Via Jason Fagone, for The Washingtonian: The Amazing Story of the Russian Defector Who Changed his Mind.
•From Alec MacGillis of ProPublica: How Political Pessimism Helps Doom Tougher Gun Laws.
•Why is the Manhattan DA looking at Newsweek’s ties to a Christian university?
•ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, on his late son, Max.
Sports pieces of note:
•SI’s Scott Price had a tremendous 5,000-word profile of Jon Gruden for SI. Great piece.
•The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur on the women’s gold medal game.
•SI’s Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther had a remarkable report on a culture of harassment inside the Dallas Mavericks.
•Yahoo’s Pat Forde and Pete Thamel gained access to emails in the college basketball corruption case.
•This piece from former Indiana coach and current ESPN analyst Tom Crean on how to find leadership is just terrific.
•What it’s like to be a black sports journalist in Canada in 2018? Sportsnet’s Donnovan Bennett sat down with four of the industry's leading voices.
•The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Yosef Weitzman on alleged accounts of mistreatment by Penn’s softball coach.
5. The AP’s Ralph Russo reported that ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit will take Jon Gruden's place on ESPN's coverage of the NFL draft.
5a. ESPN announced that play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick is leaving the network after 35 years.
5b. David Bixenspan, for Deadspin, examined the nexus of journalism and pro wrestling.
5c. CBS’s golf coverage is up in viewership.
5d. The Daytona 500 had its lowest-ever ratings this year.
5e. Fox announced its World Cup soccer schedule.