Peter Kafka

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Sports Illustrated Gives Its Biggest Star His Own Site: Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback Kicks Off Next Week

mmqbWriter becomes a big star at a big publication. Thinks about leaving to start his own site. Ends up staying — and starting his own site, with the backing of his employer.

We’ve seen the sports version of this play out with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, who launched his Grantland site two years ago.

Now we get to see another edition, when Sports Illustrated’s Peter King launches his own property next Monday: The longtime football writer/multimedia star will transform his Monday Morning QB column into The MMQB (link will work beginning 7/22), a standalone site with its own staff of eight.

“We’re going to try to be the thinking fan’s website. The people who really love football are going to come to this and learn a lot about football,” said King, who has been covering the NFL for 30 years. Casual fans are more than welcome, too: “[They will] look at it and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool. Look at Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos.’”

There’s an obvious upside for both King and his employer here. One of the most prominent figures in sports media — who kicked tires with competitors at NBC, the NFL Network and ESPN before re-upping with SI this March — gets his own turf.

And SI gets a chance to extend a franchise that already generates up to 10 million page views a month during football season.

That’s particularly important for SI right now, as the magazine works on building out its website, which until last summer was controlled by Turner broadcasting, its Time Warner corporate cousin.*

SI used to get the benefit of traffic directed from Turner’s CNN.com. But since that strained synergy is gone, it is trying to replace those eyeballs with a combination of syndication deals and new microsites/channels, like Extra Mustard (sports + pop culture + swimsuits) and SwimDaily (swimsuits).

SI executives say they can envision more standalone sites in the future, perhaps around topics like college football. But King’s MMQB should be a particularly potent combination — one of the best-known commentators/reporters in sports, plus America’s most popular sport. They’ve signed on Bose, Microsoft and P&G’s Gillette deodorant as launch sponsors for the site, which they built using WordPress over the course of a few months.

King and his employers aren’t eager to draw comparisons between his site and Simmons’s Grantland, but everyone else will. That’s not a terrible thing. ESPN said that, two years after launch, Grantland is profitable; just as important, it keeps a valuable employee happy and engaged.

In any case, the difference between the two sites should be obvious to even a casual browser: Grantland is a mashup of sports analysis and pop culture musings, designed for digital omnivores. And King’s site is going to be about NFL football, NFL football and NFL football.

“Bill basically does what he wants, because he’s a very smart guy. People love what he does. Bill Simmons talking about the latest movie — I think people really care about that,” King said. “But if I came out and wrote more than three sentences about the last episode of “The Office,” I’d be a phony. It’s just not who I am.”

I like King’s chances. While the 56-year-old doesn’t get a ton of credit as a digital trailblazer, he’s an excellent example of a traditional journalist who figured out the potential of the Web early on.

The first versions of MMQB were going up in the late ’90s, when they were mostly collections of outtakes that didn’t make it into King’s magazine stories. But by the middle of the last decade, King had turned the column into a weekly feature worth reading on its own terms: A stew of insights from the previous weekend’s games, interactions with readers and occasional detours into King’s non-football interests (like coffee, and updates from his kids’ softball games).

That mix of news/opinion/entertainment, organized under a single individual’s brand, is now a Web standard; the trick will be figuring out how to turn that into a bigger site.

“I don’t want to be a dinosaur. I’m always trying to figure out what is the next smartest thing to do,” he said. “I want to figure out how to get some great storytelling out to the public.”

* After Turner gave SI its site back, it filled its sports Web void by spending $180 million on Bleacher Report.


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