HBO "Real Sports" will profile Peter King tonight, with a specific focus on King's popular "Monday Morning Quarterback" column. Taking a second out from keeping up Quickish (what? you haven't tried it yet? please do!) I'd like to add a bit of context...
Peter King will not remember me*, but between 1998 and 1999 I was his “editor” at SI.com (nee CNNSI.com) and was responsible, along with my boss, for back-reading what was then the 2nd year of King’s online column “Monday Morning Quarterback.”
King, to his credit, understood intuitively the voice and pace and essential populism of what makes great online content -- particularly impressive in 1998, when most mainstream media’s interest in the Web ranged from ignorance to hostility.
Taking enthusiastically to the opportunities of the web format, King did four things very right with MMQB:
(1) He wrote naturally. It was like you were sitting on a barstool (or, more in King’s wheelhouse, airline seat next to him). This was a dramatic departure from the heavily edited, depersonalized pieces you normally saw in Sports Illustrated and elsewhere in mainstream sports media.
(2) He wrote at whatever length he wanted, but wisely deployed tons of formatting. Some people took to the online format because they could write at whatever lengths they wanted, but King’s word count never felt gratuitous, in part because the column was parsed into natural sections: Some kind of lead, lists and rankings, personal stories. It was long, but easy to consume.
(3) He provided a combination of insider details that were manna for football fans and simply weren’t found online at the time... and insider details about his life. It’s a point of contention throughout the history of MMQB between the folks who just want the football and can’t stand the stories about King’s take on coffee or travel or baseball or his daughters’ sports teams -- and those who absolutely love that stuff. If you hate it, you can skip over it; however, I would contend that it was the personal details as much as the football ones that drove the column’s success.
(4) It was a “franchise,” right down to its name: Every Monday morning, you’d get the column. It was built on King’s brand, yes, but also on a programming schedule that readers could easily follow (Mondays also not coincidentally also the biggest traffic day of the week in online sports media).
And MMQB was successful -- SI.com’s most popular content then and now. Along with Jimmy Traina’s Hot Clicks, it is the signature piece of programming for SI.com, and MMQB is one of the most recognizable and popular pieces of sports content on the Web. There is an argument to be made -- successfully -- that it is the single-most popular and successful programming “franchise” in online sports (which I’ll distinguish from a writer’s overall popularity, which Bill Simmons claims by a wide margin).
As someone who has been around online sports media since 1995, I’ve seen a lot and have a long institutional memory. To oversimplify, what King did was groundbreaking. Specifically:
*WHO was doing it (traditional and widely respected sports reporter);
*WHERE he was going it (venerable Sports Illustrated);
*HOW he was doing it (formatted, fan-friendly, franchised, near-real-time deadline);
*WHY he was doing it, which is not to be understated (unquestionably, it raised his profile -- far more than any work he ever did in SI’s magazine and almost certainly contributed to the overall popularity that got him the NFL Sunday Night TV gig).
In fact, the HBO segment tonight is specifically pegged off of King’s success with the “MMQB” column.
(It is worth noting that this is not some one-trick element in King's philosophy. He is among the most active mainstream sportswriters on Twitter -- with nearly half a million followers -- and spends a good chunk of his Twitter time responding to readers, both folks with questions and ones with complaints. He has shown as much of a facility with the new platform as the old one, and it begs the quiestion of whether King qualifies as one of the few talents in online sports media whose popularity could support his own stand-alone brand -- and the list is very short. I'm not suggesting he would or should try; like Simmons and ESPN, there is little-to-no upside to leaving the larger company.)
I don’t think Peter would argue if I said that, starting more than a decade ago, he became an online sportswriter who happened to write for a magazine and appear on TV.
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* - OK, he remembers.