Bob Costas Finds a New Way to Talk About Sports on HBO With ‘Back on the Record’

Bob Costas
Everett Collection

Bob Costas isn’t hosting the Olympics any longer, but he’s still having conversations about bigger issues in sports. Not too long ago, with the Summer Olympics in full swing, he might have held forth on NBC. Friday night, he will be doing it for HBO.

Costas returns to the WarnerMedia outlet with a show he says will be much like the ones he did for the service last decade, “On the Record With Bob Costas” and “Costas Now.” Indeed, the new program is titled “Back on the Record,” and the sportscaster says it will try to stay above the hot-talk fray sports aficionados typically get on TV each day.

“It’s not an hour long version of the day-to-day sort of debate that happens all over the dial,” Costas says during a recent interview. “Those have their place, but we are going to be a quarterly show, and each segment has to be about something larger than just the day’s events.”  The debut episode, slated to air Friday night at 11:00 p.m. ET,  features one-on-one interviews between the host and basketball great Charles Barkley as well as Olympics gold medalist Aly Raisman. An in-studio roundtable discussion will include Costas with Bomani Jones, former Major League Baseball pitcher David Cone and former WNBA player Renee Montgomery.

His words in many ways carry more weight than those of any late-night host. Over the course of a notable career, Costas has called golf, professional football, Nascar, professional basketball and, for many years, the Olympics. And he has led a number of talk shows that take him beyond the immediate stats and scores. Costas continues to call Major League Baseball games for the MLB Network, and will be able to continue to do so under his new programing agreement with HBO.

The key to standing apart, he says, comes in pressing to get beyond the hot take of the moment. Many people have opinions about sports, but “that doesn’t mean that all of them are convincing, intelligent or insightful or in a nuanced fashion. There is a lot of herd mentality on one side or another,” Costas says. “We have hopes of offering something that, if we do it right, will differentiate us from that.”

Over the course of a long history in sports journalism, those efforts have sometimes led to some the hot-talk sports conversations that Costas hopes to surpass.  He hasn’t been afraid to tilt at big leagues like the NFL or even global issues while leading primetime Olympics coverage. His discussion of the pervasiveness of guns in national  culture during a commentary segment on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” caused a stir, with people thinking he had called for gun control during one of TV’s biggest sports broadcasts.

That commentary “wasn’t about gun control. It was about the gun culture in sports, which leads to bad things,” says Costas. “Maybe, if I had a mulligan, I would have phrased it a little differently.” But in all of the cases where his words have sparked debate, he says, he would probably opt to speak out, rather than keep quiet. Most of the controversies around his words, he says, come from people taking them out of context “There are people whose job it is to identify stuff that they can push a button and outrage their audience, or play to their resentments.”

He also notes that he’s never done crossed commentary with calling the action “during a game or during a competition.” The “SNF” commentary came during the program’s halftime show, he says, where he was supposed to contribute essays of a sort.

He’s looking forward to new conversations, not focused on rehashing old ones. Producers recognize the challenges of  putting together  a show amid coronavirus protocols, Costas says, but he intends to try to have most of the conversations for “Back On The Record’ in person. He is open to Zoom interviews if circumstances dictate, but notes “I always preferred to be sitting across from the person, and to look the person in the eye.” Viewers will no doubt want to see that as well.