Like many, Mike Tirico had some doubts about whether the Tokyo Games would go on. But once he landed in Japan last month to continue preparations as the host of NBC's primetime coverage, those concerns subsided.
“When I got off the plane, it was the first time that I really had the confidence that this is going to happen. And it was uplifting,” Tirico said during a telephone interview Friday night. “You still miss seeing people, but when you really step back, the accomplishment for the athletes, organizers and on the TV side is really incredible. The fact that the Games started and all the events happened when they were supposed to happen is a remarkable feat and credit to the sacrifice of 1000s of people to help get this done.”
Tirico visited almost all of the venues during the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018, but didn't get to as many this time due to coronavirus concerns. He did get to the swimming venue a couple times and noted that it felt a little less stark compared to last year's NFL games played in empty stadiums. However it still did have an impact on some of the competitions.
One of the more lasting memories Tirico says he will take from Tokyo was seeing the watch parties for athletes back in the U.S., including Lydia Jacoby's family and friends celebrating in Seward, Alaska, when she won gold in the 100 meter breaststroke.
“I think the city would have put on an incredible Olympics in better circumstances," Tirico said of Tokyo. "So it’s definitely bittersweet from arrival to being around town to the reality of doing this.”
In his second Olympics as the primetime host, Tirico has done well taking over the mantle from Bob Costas, who was NBC's host for 11 Winter and Summer Games from 1992 through 2016.
The Olympics primetime host is a mix of story teller, traffic cop going from one event to the other and master interviewer. Tirico had to add fill-in play-by-play announcer to the myriad of job descriptions Friday night.
When the broadcast audio went out for the announcers in the arena during the second quarter of the gold medal men's basketball game between the U.S. and France, Tirico stepped in and called a couple minutes of action. It marked the first time he had called basketball since the NBA playoffs for ESPN in 2016.
"That was fun. I haven’t called hoops in five years, but did it for 25 years so it was truly like riding a bike,” he said.
Through the first 13 days, NBC was averaging 16.5 million viewers on broadcast and online, which was down 41% from the 28.1 million average from Rio in 2016. At Rio, none of the days averaged below 20 million while Tokyo has surpassed that figure only once, which was the second full day of competition on July 25.
Tirico figured ratings were going to be down due to a myriad of factors — the coronavirus, 13-hour time difference between New York and Tokyo along with the continuing change in viewing habits among them — but he said the ratings concerns were for others.
“If you like the Olympics, there’s never been more Olympics available to you, whether it’s digitally on cable or on the main network,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned, I’m extraordinarily proud from a production standpoint with the amount of work they did and the quality of work that they put out. It was an honor to be the person in front of the camera, behind all their brilliance.”
After spending four years preparing to host Tokyo, Tirico did admit that there is some sadness that it is going to end, but he won’t have much time until the Beijing Winter Games open in less than six months. Before Beijing, Tirico will call Notre Dame football, host “Sunday Night Football” and also be part of NBC’s golf coverage of the PGA Tour Playoffs and Ryder Cup.
“I’ve told everybody that the the end of this run is not the end of these games, but it’s the end of the Beijing Games. This is just like lap one of five for us,” he said.
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