NBC Sports announced this week that veteran NFL columnist Peter King is joining the network on an exclusive deal, leaving his longtime Sports Illustrated perch. King will bring his weekly Monday morning column to NBCSports.com, appear regularly on the network’s television and radio properties and continue to appear on its Football Night in America” program. In the spirit of his regular column, here are five things I think I think about the news.
1. I think I think King’s decision has a bigger impact on his former employer than his new one.
The venerable magazine already faced an uncertain future, and losing a cornerstone talent is not a good sign. King had been at the magazine for 29 years. He was one of only a handful of writers that smart sports fans knew to seek out. He loves football, and he loves writing about football, and while his delivery and approach are sometimes criticized, he’s as respected as any writer in any team building across the league, as much for his curiosity as his knowledge. His future is fine.
Sports Illustrated, on the other hand, is reportedly for sale and could be had for $150 million. The magazine has lost talented writers, and scaled back some ambitions. An institution that had generations of fans running to the mailbox each week is now published biweekly and has for years struggled to find its footprint in the digital space. The lone exception might have been King’s weekly column, “Monday Morning Quarterback” — a must-read for fans, coaches and execs across the league — which was turned into its own micro-site in 2013: The MMQB. It was, he wrote then, “a site under the Sports Illustrated umbrella devoted to all things football, using all the means of modern media to disseminate that football prose and information.”
There’s been speculation that the magazine’s most valuable asset is the swimsuit issue, and Sports Illustrated announced three new hires with digital backgrounds this week, seeming to indicate an increased focus on its digital operation, including SI TV.
2. I think I think the excitement over the personality-driven, niche sports vertical just might be over, and King’s former site might be the last of the genre.
King will continue writing his column at NBC, and Sports Illustrated will continue publishing MMQB content in some fashion, even if it feels increasingly like a broad label for all of SI’s football coverage. But the landscape has changed since King launched his effort five years ago.
Back then, ESPN had already given Bill Simmons Grantland to play with. Joe Posnanski was building a site called Sports on Earth. Fox gave Rob Neyer a baseball site. Yahoo would allow Adrian Wojnarowski to build staff for a basketball vertical called, um, The Vertical. RIP to all of them. Sites built around news and content seem to have a longer shelf life than those built around a single personality.
3. I think I think that most of the NFL’s top reporters are now working for outlets that have a financial relationship with the league. I certainly hope none of them feel compromised by those relationships, but the optics are less than ideal, and that might not bode well for much-needed accountability coverage of the league.
King was never an overtly critical voice, preferring to explain controversies rather than pass judgment. To his credit, though, he chose to have an MMQB reporter focused on health and safety issues. It’s often hard for outlets, even without business partnerships with the league, to invest resources in journalism that doesn’t involve transactions, team news and tidbits that affect fantasy team owners.
The league suddenly has new suitors in the digital space, eager to stream games, which could give it some leverage in talks with traditional partners, like ESPN and NBC. I don’t expect King’s style and delivery to change, but the sport is better when journalists of all stripes are asking important questions.
And while I don’t expect NFL Network to expose a leaguewide scandal, it’s important for other league reporters to feel that part of their job is to look under rocks, challenge authority and take teams and the shield to task when warranted.
4. I think I think King will remain relevant because he’ll still be highly visible on a big platform for football fans. But I hope his column doesn’t suffer. I hope he still spends more time talking to sources than talking into microphones. I hope readers still find the column, and that it doesn’t fade away as King’s broadcast responsibilities ramp up.
And I hope King can beef up his editorial voice on TV. Like him or not, Bob Costas’s Football Night in America commentaries addressed important topics in an important and visible time slot. King’s voice is a powerful one, and I hope he pushes NBC to explore the wide range of issues that his MMQB crew tackled each week. King is 60, but he has a high motor, and there’s no chance he views this new chapter as a cushy final stop before retirement.
5. I think I think Sports Illustrated better have a plan. They have a great collection of football reporters. No one slides in and takes King’s spot — no one replaces his ideas, his guidance or the doors he was able to open across the league for others on staff. What made MMQB content valuable is the same thing that made SI a must-read for decades: original stories, strong voices, respected and curious journalists. The brand can’t abandon that for a doomed video operation, aggregated content or whatever whims a new owner might bring.
I think I think King and NBC win in this shake-up. I think I fear that SI and football fans might not fare as well.
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