How Mina Kimes, ESPN’s football nerd, is shaping NFL coverage – The Washington Post

Kimes had no experience in NFL media when she joined ESPN Magazine as a feature writer in 2014. Since then, her profile has grown at warp speed: She is a co-star of ESPN’s “NFL Live” and a regular on “First Take.” Last year, she called preseason Los Angeles Rams games on TV. She hosts her own NFL podcast in which Lenny is the titled co-host.

In that way, she’s changed the paradigm not just for who gets to talk about football on TV, but how it gets talked about. Kimes, 37, is an evangelist for a new era of progressive number-crunching (think: going for it on fourth down). Then she used that football credibility to evince moral clarity about the sport she loves.

“She has fundamentally changed the way sports media works,” her ESPN colleague and former NFL player Domonique Foxworth said. “As much as we celebrate the personal achievements, her impact on sports culture is underappreciated. It feels like there’s a pre-Mina and post-Mina way of doing this job.”

As she walked through the woods, Kimes inhaled deeply and admired the panoramas, a break from the round-the-clock NFL playoff schedule, not to mention the cesspool of internet comments routinely hurled her way. Her family never took fancy vacations as a kid, but they visited national parks. She marveled at the serendipity of her career.

Back in her apartment, Kimes was sitting at her dining room table, offering a film study tutorial. She lives on a hill overlooking the city, but the house is modest by TV-star standards. Her bookshelves are lined with the works of authors including Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf. One poster in her living room has the message “Be Kind” and a large photograph of a sheep hangs on another wall.

On her laptop, she was re-watching the divisional-round playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars through two programs called NextGen Stats and TruMedia, which allowed her to track how the Chiefs do when they have three tight ends on the field. In one window was video of each play; in another was a simulation of each play, each player represented by a dot.

She created a list of plays in which the Chiefs lined up with extra tight ends and could see their results — in list form, in video form and dot form. “Counting stats are useless,” she said. “I want to see the success rate of each play to see if it accomplished what it was supposed to.”

These are the pearls of wisdom she delivers on “NFL Live,” and what helps make the show a nerdy delight for football fans. “When a broadcast flashes something like win probability, that is numbers porn,” her friend and journalist Jay Caspian Kang said. “What Mina and people like her are doing is trying to layer in what you’re seeing on the field and explain why it’s happening.”

Kimes’s passion for football was sparked by her dad, who served in the Air Force. (He met her mother when he was stationed in South Korea). She grew up on a series of bases and adopted her dad’s teams, the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners; her athletic career peaked with high school soccer. After college, she landed a job at Fortune as a reporter with little thought to sports.

A business journalist by trade, she was drawn to a burgeoning Internet community that was popularizing new metrics in football. She read websites like Football Outsiders and writers like Bill Barnwell (now an ESPN colleague), which were growing in influence, both creating smarter fans and catering to them. And if fandom was an emotional outlet, football analytics fed her intellectual curiosity. Kimes was hooked.

“You know that moment when you’re on an airplane and you feel them throttle the engine and there’s a huge roar and the plane takes off and you feel the massive power of these engines?” asked her former Fortune editor Nick Varchaver. “It’s a little bit like that when Mina turns her intelligence to something.”

“Writing is hard and full of failure,” she explained. TV money, of course, is also a different animal. “Anybody who says that doesn’t matter is lying,” she said. (There was a pang of sadness in Varchaver’s voice when he noted the world could always use more good investigative reporters.)

That choice to move away from being a sports generalist paid off in 2020, when the new “NFL Live” launched. The show has been a hit, blending Kimes’s football nerdery with film study by former quarterback Dan Orlovsky and the wisdom of former defensive lineman Marcus Spears.

The day after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during a “Monday Night Football” game, Kimes released an episode of her podcast with Foxworth to unpack the terrifying events. Foxworth is a thoughtful former leader in the NFL Players Association, and their conversation centered on equity in the sport — the time it takes for players’ post-career benefits to vest, the non-guaranteed contracts, and the difficulty of collecting disability checks after they’re done playing.

“If somebody is thinking about the culpability of watching a dangerous sport or dangerous anything it’s a legitimate concern, but it shouldn’t be because of Damar Hamlin,” Kimes said. “It’s not a representative case of the most persistent risks, which are brain injuries. And I think about that a lot, the role concussions play in football and how things have changed and where they have to go, transparency and taking care of players.”

To have Kimes on “NFL Live” when issues such as Hamlin’s injury or the allegations against Snyder or Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson come up lends the show credibility. “From the production side, we will breathe a sigh of relief because we have Mina,” said Laura Rutledge, the show’s host. “She will be able to talk about this, make [viewers] think, whereas a lot of people analyzing football don’t have that.”

Foxworth pointed out that for all the accolades Kimes gets, there remains a darker side to her willingness to wade into thornier issues. It is difficult to change the minds of fans, league stakeholders and owners; sometimes, he said, they feel like they’re screaming into a void.

“She sacrifices some of her own happiness and well-being,” Foxworth said. “She doesn’t have to put herself out there in those ways, and she keeps doing it. And she knows no matter what she will come out scarred. We might move the needle slightly on social issues, but she never comes out a winner.”

There are the obvious trolls on social media, made far worse by being a woman on TV. But Kimes has also had to call ESPN security to handle threats and harassment, which she mentioned almost flippantly during one conversation.

There is an ease to everything Kimes does, whether it’s casually mentioning a threat or just performing on TV, but it’s not always actually easy. Years ago, she recalled, she was on Le Batard’s show one day after reading a particularly awful comment on social media. Afterward, Le Batard, sensing something was wrong, asked what had happened. Kimes burst into tears, telling him how worried she was about the sound of her laugh, the pitch of her voice, the way she looked. Le Batard reassured her that her differences were so much of her appeal.

The way she has overcome that is both through extensive preparation — for her first radio interview, she prepared 70 pages of notes, of which she only needed three — and to turn those vulnerabilities into strengths, which she has spent a career doing. When she was an investigative reporter she didn’t drive, so when she’d go on reporting trips, she convinced her sources to pick her up at the airport and use the time to get to know them.

Where it all leads is a compelling question in sports media circles. Kimes’s ESPN contract expires this year, and she said she had no interest in calling games. She likes the more explanatory aspects of her job, taking reams of information and distilling it into something digestible.

She hosted a trial-run of the “ManningCast” a couple of years ago before the show stayed with just Eli and Peyton, and the Mannings’ production company now co-produces her podcast. There could be more opportunities like that. Though it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity, at least for now, than ESPN’s myriad platforms, Kimes noted she was an admirer of Bill Simmons, formerly of ESPN and founder of the Ringer, for his ability to amplify younger voices, which she’d like to do.

Simmons, too, is a fan. “She’s been my number one draft pick for a while,” he said in an interview, noting the breadth of work she could do at the Ringer beyond sports that ESPN can’t offer. According to Kimes’s agent, Michael Klein, several networks have reached out to set meetings in Arizona this week to talk about future opportunities. She could, in theory, have her podcast with one outlet and a TV pregame show gig with another — on Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football” or, yes, maybe Fox or CBS or NBC.

One thing working in her favor is that sports fans are smarter than ever, and a growing number want more from commentators than bromides like “run the ball” and “toughen up the defense.” How many more is an open question, but her ability to play off someone like Stephen A. Smith on “First Take” shows how that could work.

Kimes knows that TV is the province of former players, though she pointed out the irony in joking about her appearing on Fox and what is accepted as a traditional analyst. “I like learning, and if I’m going to be a fan of something, I want to understand it,” she said. “I don’t think I’m unique. A lot of fans are like that. Football fans all want to be smarter, just like me.”

This content was originally published here.

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