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Costas: Olympic Rights 'Up for Grabs'

Coming off his first season with the upstart MLB Network and now turning his attention to the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Bob Costas says the next round of Olympic rights is “up for grabs” and he's not sure what the expected Comcast-NBC Universal deal will mean to the situation. He spoke with B&C's Alex Weprin about the Olympics, the state of baseball and why he would never broadcast a mixed martial arts fight. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The rights packages for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics are coming up, and many analysts seem to think Disney and ESPN will blow everyone else out of the water. Do you have any sense of where the rights could be going in the future?

I think that they are certainly up for grabs. [News Corp. CEO Rupert] Murdoch was quoted as saying that if Chicago was not involved, Fox wouldn't be involved. I think if Chicago had been the 2016 site, it would have been more attractive as an American television property. That doesn't mean Rio isn't attractive, but Chicago would have put it in a different category. ABC/ESPN has a different model for this than NBC might have. We will see which model those Olympics make the most sense for.

Of course, there is also the likely development that Comcast will acquire control of NBC.

Yeah, and who knows what that does to the whole scenario?

Would that change your role at the network at all?

I don't think it would change it.

Were you surprised at the selection of Rio de Janeiro over Chicago for the 2016 Summer Games?

I was surprised that Chicago went out in the first round. But I wasn't necessarily surprised that Chicago didn't get it. Rio shapes up as potentially a great place to have a Summer Olympics, but they have problems they have to contend with. Security problems, crime problems, can they pull off both a World Cup and an Olympic games almost back to back? They certainly have the weather and the setting. It is a feather in the IOC's cap if they can have a successful South American Olympics.

Instant replay didn't come up at the recent MLB general manager meetings. Do you think that is where baseball is going?

That is where baseball is going. But inevitably, if it doesn't happen now, it will happen eventually. The technology has become too sophisticated, and the human cry will be too great when the average guy sitting at home can see what the umpires cannot, and what baseball officials choose to ignore.

That said, you can't just institute it willy-nilly. I don't think it makes sense during the regular season. But in the postseason, you have all the technology you need, and every game is extremely important. You could have a seventh umpire who is the replay umpire, and you always have a representative of the commissioner's office at every game. They just have to employ it sensibly; you shouldn't be splitting hairs.

The season started with [Yankees third baseman] Alex Rodriguez holding a press conference and admitting steroid use, and it ended with him being a hero. Does success make people forget about things like drugs? Or is it still a big problem in baseball?

I think that, obviously, winning papers over a lot of things. But in fairness to Alex, it wasn't just winning. If we believe in second chances, and we say that we do, I don't know what Alex could have done, from that point in spring training on, any better than he did. By all accounts he was an ideal teammate, he stayed away from controversy, he applied himself in every meaningful way, he was a model patient in terms of his rehab and the way he approached the game.

There are some people who will never forgive him for what he did or what they think he did. But if people are open to the possibility of someone turning things around, I think you have to give him an A+ for that, from spring training on. It isn't just that he played well, but that he carried himself well.

How was it being back in a broadcast booth with the MLB Network?

I loved it; I was worried I would be a little bit rusty, but I think I was probably 95% in the groove of it. There are always going to be a few little moments where you say, “I thought this was going to be just like riding a bike until now.” But for the most part, it was fine.

How has working at MLB Network been different than at HBO? Do you miss the live audience you had [during Costas Now]?

What I miss about HBO is this: First of all, I loved working with every person there. Their commitment to excellence and the prestige of HBO was something I was proud to be associated with. What I miss is the event feeling that Costas Now had, and the fact that at HBO, you could tackle any sports subject. I love MLB, but obviously it is all baseball.

That is good on the one hand, but when you sit and think, "Well, we could be doing something now about head injuries in the NFL," or you could be doing something about academics and athletics at the college level, or about women's sports or whatever it might be, HBO was the place to do that. I knew that at the time, but on the other hand, where else am I going to do all this baseball stuff?

It is kind of like having the best steak in the house, and going, "Damn it! I could have had the lobster!" Well, you can't have both or you will explode. I was forced to choose between two perfect scenarios. And I couldn't do both.

I thought this was probably the last time I would have a chance to embrace baseball, which has always been my favorite sport, this way. And just as I had a great comfort factor with [HBO Sports President] Ross Greenburg at HBO, I have the same with [MLB Network President] Tony Pettiti. And I brought my producer Bruce Cornblatt over from HBO with me. We have been very happy with the programming we have been able to provide to MLB. It isn't a matter of preferring one over another; they were both great in their own way, and I couldn't do both at the same time.

Do you think baseball is becoming more of a regional sport?

I think if a World Series goes six or seven [games], no matter who is in it, it picks up national appeal. And if a World Series or LCS involves teams that have national appeal, like the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Dodgers, and probably to a lesser extent the Cardinals, the Phillies, the Angels or the Mets, you are going to get a national following.

There are exceptions to it, but I think that to measure baseball's television appeal, you really have to consider local and regional [telecasts]. You have to cobble everything together. It doesn't make sense to say, “Well, the game of the week in 1988 got an X rating on a Saturday, and now in 2009 it gets a Y rating.” That does not take into account the thousands of [additional] games that are on television locally, or regionally or on a season package you can have on cable, or following games on the Internet. People just absorb baseball in different ways now; if you cobble it all together, more people are tapping into baseball, attendance-wise, online, marketing-wise, total television viewership, than ever before. But is there some falloff in national viewing except in certain situations? Yeah.

I think one of the things that is a mistake for baseball to do is to continually compare itself to football, which obviously is television's king, or to compare itself in some apples-and-oranges way to TV ratings of its own from past generations. Considering the present climate, I thought this was a pretty strong year.

Do you think new media like Twitter, Facebook and blogs have changed how baseball, and sports in general, are being covered?

With people tapping into information and sharing information and opinion in so many different ways, it is obvious it has changed things a lot. But I don't think it should have much, if any, effect on the way a game is covered live by a network. You can't help what people may do, thoughtfully or not, in response to what you do. But what you do should be guided by your own sense of what makes a good telecast, not by pandering to whatever the least common denominator is, or whatever the loudest voice in the back of the room is.

Mixed martial arts has been getting more network play recently on CBS and cable. Do you see it going more mainstream?

I guess to some extent it already is.

Would you ever broadcast a match?

No. But that is a moot point. [Laughs] Why would anyone ever ask me to broadcast one? That wouldn't exactly seem like a great fit. I think they can do without me, and I can do without it.