NEW YORK — The biggest change for Americans watching the Winter Olympics on television this month will likely be the first face they see on the screen.
Mike Tirico is replacing Bob Costas as host of NBC’s prime-time Olympics coverage, which starts Thursday from Pyeongchang, South Korea. Costas hosted 11 Olympics starting in 1992 until he stepped down last year. He became as identified with the event as Jim McKay was for an earlier generation.
“I’m taking the approach of I’m following him, not replacing him,” Tirico said. “You don’t replace someone like Bob.”
NBC has groomed Tirico, 51, and he’s studied up on Alpine skiing and the luge. Whether he’s well-suited for the role and accepted by the audience won’t become clear until he does it.
The job requires someone conversant in sports, of course. But he’ll also have to deal with unanticipated news events, history and pop culture. He’ll be expected to talk about the tense relations between North and South Korea and the absence of the Russian Olympic team because of a doping scandal. A sense of humor helps, too.
Costas adeptly bridged these worlds, said Andrew Billings, a University of Alabama professor and author of “Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth.” The former host knew sports and also hosted a general-interest talk show for many years, and spoke out on issues like the dangers of football.
While most sports fans know Tirico from his years at ESPN, he’s less visible among the casual viewers who determine whether or not the Olympics are a success.
“Whoever goes in there is going to have to prove themselves, or reinvent what the job of Olympic host is,” Billings said.
Tirico’s not interested in changing the job, or pretending that he duplicates Costas’ skills and interests. “I’ll just try to take my sensibilities and curiosities and mix them in along the way,” he said.
While at ESPN a decade ago, he requested an assignment to the World Cup soccer tournament, knowing the event was a cultural phenomenon as much as a competition, and anticipating ESPN may win a bid to broadcast the Olympics someday. NBC’s Olympics portfolio was a key factor in his jump to the network in 2016, he said.
News networks are on the TV in his home office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as much as sports, he said.
“You know there are going to be times when people say, ‘just stick to sports,’” he said. “But that is impossible in an Olympics forum.”
He said if an issue comes up that calls for commentary, “I’ll make it, and I’ll make it knowing I might be criticized. I know it comes with that chair.”
Tirico’s World Cup work was one of the things that brought him to NBC’s attention as a possible successor to Costas, said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC Olympics. Tirico worked as a host of NBC’s late-night Summer Olympics coverage in Brazil in 2016.
Tirico won’t be intimidated by the assignment because he’s spent a lifetime preparing for a role like this, said John Wildhack, a former executive at ESPN who worked closely with Tirico and is now athletics director at their alma mater, Syracuse University.
“Mike is one of the most versatile on-air talents in the industry and of our generation,” Wildhack said.
Raised in Queens, New York, Tirico worked in local television in Syracuse after his graduation and before joining ESPN. The first guest on his ESPN radio show — recorded at S.U.’s student-run WAER studio — was Costas, another alum. Tirico’s most visible job at ESPN was a decade on “Monday Night Football.”
At a time the issue of sexual misconduct is frequently in the news, Tirico has a history there, too. Two books about ESPN’s history describe his lewd and unwanted advances on up to six women, including allegedly following one co-worker in his car. He was suspended by the network for three months in the early 1990s.
NBC said it was aware of the incidents when Tirico was hired, he assured them the behavior was long in the past “and we have no evidence of anything to the contrary.” Tirico, now married with two children, declined comment, and the incidents have attracted little attention in the run-up to the Olympics.
“That happened well over two decades ago and Mike has been nothing but the consummate professional” since, Wildhack said.
Tirico said that nobody, except maybe his family, will be tuning in to NBC’s prime-time Olympics telecast to watch him.
“If you watch the games for all of the Olympics, and I’ve helped viewers understand in some way the who, what, where and why about it, if I helped them enjoy the viewing experience and connected a few of the disparate worlds that come together at the Olympic games, then I’ve done my job,” Tirico said.