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February 22, 2010
Broadcasting major sports events, that is, at least the way Al Michaels and Bob Costas do it. Neither is getting them in the same room, but NBC has both hosting the Vancouver Games. Do you believe in miracles?
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February 22, 2010

It's Not As Easy As It Looks

Broadcasting major sports events, that is, at least the way Al Michaels and Bob Costas do it. Neither is getting them in the same room, but NBC has both hosting the Vancouver Games. Do you believe in miracles?

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Like Costas, Michaels was a broadcasting prodigy. When he was 14 the family moved out to Los Angeles—same year as the Dodgers. At 18 he went to Arizona State to study broadcasting, and while registering for classes on his first day, he met future All-Star Sal Bando. They would meet again at the 1972 World Series, which the 27-year-old Michaels was covering for NBC. When he was 21, Michaels and his wife worked for game show titan Chuck Barris. (Al would cold-call people to get them to go on The Dating Game; Linda would set up the travel and on occasion serve as date chaperone.) When Michaels was 23, he and Linda moved to Hawaii, where Al described every bouncing ball on the islands on TV and radio and worked hard to properly pronounce names with a lot of vowels. At 26 he was hired to call games on WLW for the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds. Not long after that, he was sharing the booth with Howard Cosell on Monday Night Baseball. In 2006, after 20 seasons as the voice of Monday Night Football on ABC, Michaels jumped to NBC to do Sunday Night Football. "Sure, I had this belief I would become a sports announcer, but I was totally unrealistic about what it would take," Michaels says. "I'll tell you, naiveté is the best thing you can have when you are young."

Costas and Michaels have been friends for 30 years. They know stuff about each other. Costas leans left politically. Michaels is to the right. Michaels refuses to wear a winter coat; if you catch him walking around Vancouver, you will probably see him in a thin Member's Only--type jacket. Costas dreams of going to a small town—Chattanooga sticks out in his mind—and calling a summer of minor league baseball. Michaels claims to have not eaten a single vegetable since he was a kid. Costas can recite lineups of Strat-O-Matic games he played in 1966.

But, that's just ... stuff. What they mostly know about each other is what we know about them. It's what they see on television.

Costas brings with him a near photographic sports memory and an almost supernatural facility with language. He often writes his television essays in one take. He admits—a bit sheepishly—that he can't remember ever having that feeling of not being able to think of a certain word. That verbal nimbleness has made him the most versatile guy in the business. He has called baseball, basketball and football play-by-play. He is hosting at his ninth Olympics. He has appeared on network TV, cable and radio. "If there was a decathlon for sports announcers," says NBC Sports executive producer David Neal, "Bob would win hands down. He might not win every event. But he'd finish in the top two in every one."

He's also as good an interviewer as there is on television. At the Olympics, Costas will most likely interview everyone from gold medal winners to visiting dignitaries, but that's nothing. In the late '80s and early '90s Costas was host of the freewheeling late-night interview show Later With Bob Costas. The cosmic height might have been when Costas asked heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne why he had urinated on the Alamo. Ozzy replied, "Everyone has a few skeletons in their closet, Bob."

"Bob has this unique ability to ask exactly the question that you wanted to ask," Michaels says. "People think that's easy. It's not. It takes a special talent in that moment to word a question in such a way that you think, That's exactly how I would have asked it."

Michaels is more of a grinder, a play-by-play lifer. This Olympics is his first hosting gig in nearly a decade—it's his first Olympics since 1988—and he readily admits that he does not have Costas's natural ease with words. He prepares relentlessly for games. He works hard on the basics; never mispronounce a name, never say anything before you know, always remember that a player runs up to the 50-yard line and then down past the 50-yard line. His sense for detail is remarkable. "Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows the football rule book better than Al," says NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. "He's like that with everything. Al is ready for anything that happens. He is the best announcer in the history of pro football."

But Michaels's greatest gift is his ear. He knows how to call a game without intruding on it, to talk to his audience without jolting them out of the moment. "When I listen to Al do play-by-play," Costas says, "he's not just calling a game. He's conducting. A little bit of crowd noise. A few words. The sounds of the game. A few more words. It's like music."

So here they are in Vancouver, Ebersol's Olympic dream team, the most celebrated host and the most celebrated play-by-play man in sports television.

That lack of choice with sports announcers? It often means we are stuck getting batted over the head by shtick and catchphrases and look-at-me buffoonery. You can't help but think half the time, Why are they yelling at me? "What people don't understand is it takes so much more confidence to call a game without trying to be noticed," says CBS's Jim Nantz, who calls games in the same spirit as Costas and Michaels. "It takes so much more confidence to not shout, 'Hey, over here, look at me.'"

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