Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski to join NBC's Kentucky Derby coverage

Tuesday April 29th, 2014

Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir connected with audiences during the Sochi broadcast for NBC.
Kris Connor/Getty Images

The breakout television stars of the Sochi Games will take their two-person act to Churchill Downs. NBC Olympic figure skating analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir have been tabbed as fashion correspondents for NBC's May 3 coverage of the Kentucky Derby. As they saddle up to their new assignment, Lipinski (from Los Angeles) and Weir (from Delaware) jumped on the phone together for a joint interview with Would it not be fantastic if you two could actually call the race?

Lipinski: You know what, Johnny, maybe we just do this for ourselves and YouTube it?

Weir: I think we will end up Instagraming the race and then maybe call it whether anyone wants to see it or not. We will pick a horse based on how pretty it is rather than the one that has the best odds.

Lipinski: And by its name.

Weir: We will bet on a horse with 97-1 odds with a ribbon in his hair.

Lipinski: We like the underdog. As you understand it, what is your role on the Derby broadcast?

Weir: I think our role is to bring some fun and light to the Kentucky Derby broadcast. That's what I think we were able to accomplish at the Olympics and I think NBC saw that and knew we could bring some fun and charm to the Kentucky Derby -- or at least some more. Our overall duties will be reporting on the culture and style of the event. Tara and I are both equestrian enthusiasts so we really respect the horse lifestyle. I think we can culturally speak about the Kentucky Derby, and me having been there, I can impart my experiences to Tara before we go so she knows what to expect.

Lipinski: I think Johnny and I can bring the full feel of what the Kentucky Derby has to offer. I feel like the great thing about Johnny and I is the public can relate to us. It's what they would want to see when they turn on the TV to watch the Kentucky Derby. It's exactly what Johnny and I would do if we were there -- commenting on the fashion and the parties and what is happening around the horse racing.

Weir: I suppose you can think of us as cultural attachés between the Kentucky Derby and the rest of America. Why do you think the audience connected with you in Sochi?

Lipinski: I think first off we both had worked very hard up until then and we both know our sport very well. But I don't even think that came into play. I think what we did was very unique because Johnny and I are close friends -- and it's not forced. There is this great chemistry we have whether a camera is on us or we are by ourselves walking around a city. We both wanted to enjoy figure skating again and see what is so great about it. Yes, there are all these numbers but that is not everything that matters. It is young, fun, hip, and I think we wanted to feel like we were having a conversation with people in their living rooms, along with explaining the sport. What was great is that there were lots of laughs and lighthearted moments.

Weir: Something that Tara and I do very well is we don't take everything so seriously so that people can't relate. We are broadcasters and I would say freshly-minted professional broadcasters, and we take that seriously and our sport seriously. But at the end of the day we were there watching the event and teaching people about it, and we were doing it in a very real and organic way. I think many people in the audience respected that because we were not talking down to them or reading off some piece of paper. We really had an enlightened sense of what was going on the ice and we could bring that experience to people and in a way that was young and, I suppose, fresh, Now the fact that Tara and I are such close friends and that we value everything about each other, I think that comes through on television. That is rare in the world we come from -- figure skating -- to find a friend like that because it is very Black Swan, very cutthroat and you never know you can trust. It was a perfect storm for us. We were in a foreign land together, sharing a big hotel adjoining room and for all intents and purposes lovers and friends and each other stylists. We tried to bring out the reality of the Olympics. NBC has Sunday Night Football, the Premier League, and the NHL. Why not ask NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus to give you two a shot at another of these sports?

Lipinski: Sunday Night Football with Johnny and Tara!

Weir: Gentleman in Spandex will be our wrap-up show. I can only imagine the eye makeup we would pull out for football. If I asked you to name any of the Derby horses, could you do it?

Weir: Miley Cyrus?

Lipinski: I don't know any of the horses but since I've decided I am going to gamble, I am going to start studying for smart choices. What celebrity should be at the Derby and why?

Weir: I would like Tara and I to have brunch with Beyonce and Jay Z because I think we have a lot to learn from them and we love them. They can be our guests.

Lipinski: I'm right there with you. I live for Jay Z and Beyonce. I also feel like Lupita Nyong'o would be amazing.

GALLERY: Celebrities at the Kentucky Derby

Weir: I had so much fun there last time because, first of all, I was drinking a little bit. Second of all, I got to meet so many people because the Derby brings out so many sports luminaries. I got to meet Tom Brady and I am obsessed with him. Super-fashionable and chic. Two very good friends of mine -- Rebecca Romijn and Jerry O'Connell -- I met there and we stayed in touch since. Will you be grading the fashions of any of your NBC Sports colleagues such as Bob Costas or Tom Hammond?

Lipinski: I feel like we might to do that. That might be fun.

Weir: They are broadcasters and incredible ones at that but they are sort of public property and they are up on chopping block. They have to dress well. They are not exempt from our critiques. Where will you watch the race?

Weir: I would assume we will be in bath robes at a hotel eating chicken fingers.

Lipinski: That does happen sometimes.

Weir: Trust me, we will be there hollering and mint julep-ing and having an amazing time.

Miami Heat forward Shane Battier (left) had an internship of sorts covering the NBA draft for ESPN.
Jeff Zelevansky/NBAE/Getty Images

The Noise Report examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. Heat forward Shane Battier has long been one of the NBA's most media-friendly subjects, and he could soon be making the move from the court to the studio. Battier's reps at WME have had conversations with ESPN and CBS/Turner -- ESPN confirmed its interest in Battier to last week -- about a post-playing career in broadcasting. The 14-year NBA veteran has made it clear that this will be his last NBA season. "These are probably the final couple months or weeks of my career," Battier recently told the Charlotte Observer. "I enjoy the competition, I enjoy the locker room. I don't enjoy the grind as much as I used to. Part of that is having kids (ages 6 and 3) and having a family."

Battier worked last year's NBA draft for ESPN as a Green Room reporter and has great relationships with the broadcast networks. He'll get hired somewhere and then like every other new broadcaster, his success will be determined by how much he prepares and his honesty with viewers.

2. The key to a successful Kentucky Derby broadcast is to balance the celebration of the event with the storytelling of the horses entered in the race. NBC Sports coordinating producer Rob Hyland, who will produce the Derby coverage, said Saturday's broadcast will start soft with celebrity and culture-oriented features and get more focused on the race as the day goes on. NBC Sports Group's coverage runs from 4-7 p.m. ET on NBC and Noon ET-4 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The approximate post time for the 139th running of the Derby is 6:24 PM ET.

2a. How did Lipinski and Weir wind up on the Derby coverage? Well, Hyland happens to produce NBC's figure skating coverage in Sochi. "Not only did I see the impact they had as excellent analysts -- they covered their sport extremely well -- but I also saw the attention they had of our viewers and the attention they seemed to grab on what they wore each day," Hyland said.

Hyland thought the pair could work for the Derby and on the night the Sochi closing ceremony, he happened to receive emails from fellow NBC Olympics coordinating producer Becky Chatman and Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli suggesting the same idea.

2b. The Derby coverage will mark the NBC debut of Josh Elliott, who came to the network from ABC's Good Morning America. Elliott will front a piece on jockey Rosie Napravnik, who is riding a horse (Vicar's In Trouble) that is partially trained by her husband, Joe Sharp. Elliott also went to Boston to catch up with the connections of Wicked Strong. One percent of that horse's winnings go to the One Fund, which was set up to support the victims of the bombings. Hyland said he will also be sending Weir and Lipinski to the barn to meet some of the horses, which promises to be comic gold.

2c. What has NBC told Lipinski and Weir about future assignments? "We obviously so enjoyed our time in Sochi and were so thankful and blessed that we created so many new fans of not only our broadcasting skills but also figure skating," Weir said. "We definitely have a major interest in maintaining our position in figure skating and the Olympics because it was just so magical for us and we enjoyed it fully. It definitely is something we envision doing together for a long time. As far as where we are at right now, we are talking to NBC and how we can fit into the family of peacocks and what we can do help them and what they can do to help us. We are in a good, development stage of how we can be used, hence we are at the Kentucky Derby. Our future is looking bright but we are respectful of our peacocks and we look forward to expanding our broadcasting career.

3. Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily reported that ESPN drew 1.83 million viewers for the first airing of "Bad Boys," the 11th-best audience for a 30 for 30 debut. The network's top 30 for 30 film is "You Don't Know Bo," which drew 3.6 million viewers in December 2012. Karp reported "Bad Boys" fell below the audience for other basketball-related docs such as "The Fab Five" (2.75 million), "Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks" (2.05 million) and "The Announcement" (2.05 million).

3a. ESPN has debuted a set of new podcasts and "Capital Games" with ESPN college basketball analyst Andy Katz and ABC News political director Rick Klein has strong potential. The podcast will examine the intersection of sports and politics.

3b. Awful Announcing delivers MLB local announcer rankings for your perusal.

3c. ESPN MLB announcers Dan Shulman and John Kruk will call this week's Sunday Night Baseball game between the Cubs and Cardinals from the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field. They'll also sing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the Seventh Inning Stretch. This will be the first time Sunday Night Baseball has positioned its commentators in the bleachers for a telecast. Baseball Tonight will also be onsite.

3d. The former Crowd Goes Wild staffer Georgie Thompson is headed back to England. She will work the Champions League final for Fox Sports 1 in May and there is a possibility she will part of Fox Sports 1's coverage of the Women's World Cup in 2015.

3e. Chelsea's win over Liverpool on Sunday averaged 940,000 viewers, the most-watched early (pre-10 a.m. ET kickoff) game ever in the U.S., according to NBC Sports. The network said the game was the third most-watched EPL match ever on cable (behind 1.033 million for the 2012 "Manchester Derby" on ESPN, and 1.019 million for Chelsea-Manchester United on NBCSN last January).

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