The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Mina Kimes, football nerd, is shaping the future of NFL coverage

Mina Kimes, in Los Angeles. (Alisha Jucevic/For The Washington Post)
13 min

LOS ANGELES — Mina Kimes, a Yale grad turned investigative business reporter turned NFL analyst on ESPN, was winding her way along a hiking trail through a Pasadena forest on a recent afternoon, with her dog, Lenny, in tow. She wore a hoodie, leggings and a hat with a South Korean flag, a nod to her mother’s home country. As the path snaked back and forth across a stream, she picked up Lenny at every crossing, cradling him in her arms to keep his paws dry.

“He’s afraid of the water,” Kimes explained.

Kimes had no experience in NFL media when she joined ESPN the 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.

After Kimes skirted another crossing, Lenny pressed tightly to her chest, she considered for a moment her future in NFL media. The conversation drifted to a recent Fox pregame segment, in which a wide camera shot showed all seven of the show’s hosts standing next to each other — one large, grizzled football man after another, from former star players such as Rob Gronkowski to former star coaches such as Jimmy Johnson.

“Gosh, could you imagine?” Kimes said. “I’d be obscured. Or I’d have to stand on a box.”

“Good point, Gronk,” she imagined herself saying with a chuckle.

She’d be an outlier, no doubt, and not just as a petite Asian American woman. Her unique approach to the job would offer its own diversity: Her analysis is rooted in empirical research and analytics, then paired with incisive commentary about the NFL’s myriad bad actors and moral crises. One day she can be found calmly explaining DVOA, which measures a team’s efficiency on each play compared with the league average, to Stephen A. Smith on “First Take”; on another, she can be seen imploring viewers not to be desensitized by the scandals of Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.

In that way, she has changed the paradigm for not just 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 uses that football credibility to evince moral clarity about the sport she loves.

“She has fundamentally changed the way sports media works,” 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 when she was a kid, but they visited national parks. She marveled at the serendipity of her career.

“I feel like Tom Hanks in ‘Big.’ Like a high person who is like, ‘F---, does everyone know I’m high?’ That’s how I feel on TV sometimes: ‘How am I here? Did they check IDs?’ "

Rise of the football nerds

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.

“I love its expression,” Kimes said. “It’s unknowable.”

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 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.

Kimes was a star reporter, writing deeply reported investigations, including one about a cement used in surgery to reinforce bones that was killing patients. The work was heavy and draining, and she found escape in sports (and literature; she wrote reviews of Woolf books in her spare time). She started watching Seahawks games at a bar in Brooklyn and found herself combing through message boards, soaking up any information she could find.

A business journalist by trade, she was drawn to a burgeoning internet community that was popularizing new metrics in football. She read websites such as Football Outsiders and writers such as 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.”

In 2014, she wrote an essay on her personal blog about how watching the Seahawks that season had brought her closer to her father. It went viral. Around that time, Deadspin, then in its heyday, aggressively recruited Kimes to fill a role that could have included covering ESPN in its patented adversarial style. Instead, she ended up at ESPN the Magazine as a feature writer. She wrote cover stories about the enigma of Aaron Rodgers and the phenomenon of bat flipping in South Korea but also got reps on afternoon TV, thanks to producer Erik Rydholm and TV host Dan Le Batard. A few years ago, Kimes stopped writing and transitioned to full-time TV personality.

“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.)

She eventually launched her NFL podcast, not just because she wanted to geek out on football but because she wanted to have an expertise. “I’m not personable enough to have my own show,” she said. “I need to bring information.”

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.

One notable metric: The number of women watching is up nearly 10 percent this year from the last year of the show’s previous iteration. An average of 80,000 women watch “NFL Live” every day.

‘Just like me’

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.

“The five years of health care that I enjoyed? He don’t get that,” Foxworth said of Hamlin. “The pension that I will enjoy when eventually I take it out? He don’t get that. His family doesn’t get that.”

“That’s an outrage,” Kimes said.

Foxworth made clear that he wanted to improve football, not make it go away, a departure from much of the other coverage, which focused on fans’ complicity in the violence so endemic to the sport. If one accepts the massive TV audiences and enduring cultural dominance of football, there was a practicality to their conversation.

“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, far worse when their target is 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 to extensively prepare — for her first radio interview, she created 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 used 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 has 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 such as “run the ball” and “toughen up the defense.” How many more is an open question, but her ability to play off someone such as 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.”

She added, “Listeners and viewers have more in common with me than anyone else on set.”