One month before the curtain rises on the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, NBC—which shelled out $775 million for these games—lost one of its biggest stars.
Tuesday morning, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn went on the Today show to announce that she would not be competing next month due to her knee injury, which will undoubtedly force NBC Sports executives—which had previously expressed their confidence she would be able to compete following her initial surgery—to alter their coverage leading up to the Games.
"We're disappointed for her," NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus told reporters during a media event held at Rockefeller Center's Studio 8H (home of Saturday Night Live). "We wish her well."
Lazarus explained that while Vonn is a major Olympic star, she is far from the only one.
"We look for the next story," he said, highlighting other members of the U.S. Olympic ski team like Julia Mancuso, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin and Bode Miller. "There's a lot of depth and a lot of excitement about all stories." Lazarus reminded everyone that in 2010 in Vancouver, the U.S. won 37 medals, only two of which were won by Vonn.
Lazarus did admit however, that NBC would alter their coverage and promotion leading up to the Games somewhat, as Vonn figured to play a major part. "We wish we had Lindsey there, but we don't," he said. "That's the nature of sports television [stars get hurt]."
Gary Zenkel, president, NBC Olympics and president, operations & strategies, NBC Sports Group, argued that one unique aspect of the Olympics is that often times viewers will fall in love with athletes that they didn't even know existed prior to the Games.
"Stars are more often made and born during the course of the Olympics," Zenkel said. "There are amazing athletes that are going to be in Sochi, many of which we know, but some we haven't identified yet."
Lazarus was asked if NBC had approached Vonn about the possibility of being part of their coverage, assuming she is recovered enough from her surgery.
"If she wanted to have that discussion we'd certainly welcome it," he said, but explained that they will not approach her since she is likely pretty devastated about not being able to compete.
One way NBC plans to compensate for Vonn's absence is with the addition of former Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who will be a part of NBC's coverage. Kerrigan will appear across a variety of NBC platforms and serve as an analyst for their figure skating coverage, though she said she wouldn't be doing color commentary.
Kerrigan will also participate in a longform feature done by Mary Carillo, on the 20 year anniversary of the 1994 Lillehammer Games, which featured the infamous kneecap attack from rival skater Tonya Harding's then-husband Jeff Gillooly.
Kerrigan, who had been fairly apprehensive about speaking publicly on the subject, was asked what made her want to do the piece.
"I was nervous to know how things would get twisted and turned, because that's happened before," she told reporters. "I have trust in Mary and [producer Margaret Roth] into just telling the story from my perspective."
Another aspect of the Sochi Games that figures to draw in viewers to NBC's coverage is the current social and political unrest in the country, namely its very strict anti-gay laws.
"It remains to be seen how it will play out, we don't know what's going to happen," said Lazarus, when asked if he was worried that anything bad might happen. He said that NBC News will be on hand to cover the Games from that perspective.
"Obviously we have our fingers crossed that nothing happens," added chief Olympic anchor Bob Costas. "If anything, the prospect of a terrorist event and the controversy over the anti-gay laws, those things in an odd way has increased awareness and interest in these games."
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