ESPN Analyst Mina Kimes on Football, Twitter, and Learning to Interrupt Men on TV
If you have tuned into ESPN even cursorily over the past few years, you almost certainly know the name Mina Kimes. Not to be too much of a hipster, but I’m pretty sure I knew it first—from back when we both were just a couple of Seahawks fans living in Brooklyn. (OK, the hipster denial was always going to be a tough sell.) Mina and I got to know each other within the absurdly goofy realm of Seahawks Twitter—the sheer volume of inside-joke Tumblrs made would astonish you—and then started watching games together. At that point Mina was still new to ESPN, but I was even newer to the world of journalism as a whole, and her advice and mentorship was invaluable. Ultimately I followed a not-dissimilar path to Mina’s (albeit one that’s resulted in significantly less time on the air), turning Twitter jokes and friendships into an actual career in sports media.
Mina, who now lives in Los Angeles, spoke with me about what it took for her to evolve from mostly behind-the-scenes business reporter to esteemed football analyst—a transition inevitably made more difficult, in some ways, by the fact that she is a woman. The skills required are more universal, though, than they might seem at first glance.
So. We met on the internet, like the very online people that we are, at a point before you were the megastar you are today. Had you met a fair number of people from Twitter?
Yes and no. I wasn't even working in sports—I was a business journalist working at Bloomberg News, and before that Fortune. While I was doing that as my day job, I was active on NFL social media. As far back as 2010 or 2011, when I started using it more often, I began to meet people in that world: football writers, analysts and fans. People who would then go on to be very influential in my own career, like Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell. Our mutual friend Danny Kelly I met through Seahawks Twitter, and we would collaborate sometimes back then—but again, this is all when I was a biz journalist. I wasn't meeting people to hang out, but social media was sort of like an introduction for me to the world of people who cover football professionally. You were probably the only person I actually, in those days, met in real life after exchanging messages about football. We lived in the same city, you're a woman … [laughs]. The dynamic was a bit different.
Yeah, I think it was the middle of the 2014 season. I met up with you and your friends once, and we just started watching every game together leading up to the awful Super Bowl . We didn't watch that one together.
I think this is one of the potentially nice things about social media, is you can use it to actually meet people with shared interests in a positive way. I had some friends from Seattle who I watched games with, and I remember when you and I connected, you didn't know that many people who were fans like you. It was a nice point of connection.
And was that around when you wrote the piece about your dad and football, or a little after?
I wrote that right around the time when Seattle won the Super Bowl, but I didn't move to ESPN immediately after that.
“Another nice thing about the internet is that is shows you you have an audience when you might not think that you do, if that makes sense. Before social media, I never thought anyone would be interested in what I had to say or write about football.”
Was any part of your decision to write that piece encouraged by finding the NFL community online and being active within it?
Definitely! When I was a business journalist, social media was the only outlet I had for sharing my football takes, meeting like-minded people—it was my entree into the NFL generally. By the time I'd written that, I'd already been engaged in that world for a few years, and I was a writer. If you're passionate about something and you're a writer, you write about it. But at that point, I hadn't been writing about it—certainly not professionally. Social media was where I cultivated the passion in a public sense, and it naturally led to writing about it because of what I did for a living.
For sure—it happened in sort of a similar way for me. After you helped me get an internship at Billboard (I can never thank you enough for making that call!), from there I was kind of like, well, I do spend a lot of time thinking about the Seahawks and talking about the Seahawks ...
Exactly, like this is my weird passion and I spend all of my free time doing this … it makes you not just realize that it's something you're passionate about, but that it's something people want to hear you or read you on. I think that's another nice thing about the internet is that is shows you you have an audience when you might not think that you do, if that makes sense. Before social media, I never thought anyone would be interested in what I had to say or write about football.
That's a good way to put it. The internet has changed media in many ways for the worse, but also there is a lot more flexibility in what people have the opportunity to cover and find an audience in. Obviously you weren't an NFL analyst right away—you started at ESPN writing (extremely great) features. What kind of work did you have to do to gain the credibility to get the analyst role? Based on what I know, you've just done a ton of work and basically … studying.
Studying is probably the right word, as boring as that sounds. Prior to analysis becoming my job, I was spending a lot of my free time not just watching football but trying to understand it better. When it did become my job, it wasn't my free time, it was all of my time. I would say the bulk of it I would describe as just watching and reading, but I also spent a lot of time asking questions. Some of the people I'm bothering are people I work with—I'm really lucky to have access to not only experts in different aspects of the game, but people who are willing to help and generous with their time—but also, again, people I've met online.
Some of the best analysts in the game, I find, are "amateurs." There's a lot of great film study happening on Twitter. A buddy of mine, Nate Tice, now co-hosts The Athletic football podcast—but for years, he was just putting out great clips on Twitter. I learned a lot just from following his feed. Dan Orlovsky—yes, he's a former NFL quarterback who I'm on NFL Live with—but he got the attention of football media by posting clips on Twitter. It's a great tool to not only bounce ideas off of people but also learn.
“People think you're either born with confidence or willingness to be on TV, or you're not, and I don't think that's true at all.”
What made you want to make that leap from being strictly a feature writer to someone who has more of an analysis focus? What made analysis compelling?
When I was a feature writer, I was a guest on our mutual friend Bill Barnwell's podcast—an analysis podcast, basically. I just found that I was really looking forward to that, and enjoyed it so much, and also that I wanted more time to focus on it and get better at it. When I was doing multiple things, my time was sort of split. So for me, it was about saying, "Wow, I really love doing this, and I want time and space to get better at it."
I feel like one of the differences between analysis and feature writing is that it requires so much more confidence and assertiveness.
Yeah, 1000 percent.
How was making that adjustment for you? How did you come into your own in that way?
From a public-facing, social media perspective, nobody really cares who's writing the profile of Aaron Rodgers. I might get a couple weird things, but for the most part, when you're a reporter, the story speaks for itself. Now, I speak for myself. Every aspect of that speech is suddenly open to criticism, and I would say a lot of that criticism tends to focus on the messenger and the delivery style rather than the content itself [laughs]. Some of the criticism I get, which my colleagues do also, is content-specific—and that's fine. I never have any problem with people who disagree with my takes.
The gendered aspect is more just me being me, and the way I'm saying it, or my faces, or my delivery or whatever. Early on, if I got negative feedback—even if it was not content specific—it would sting a lot more. It still does, although I don't look at it as much, if I'm being honest. For the most part, I've put a lot of work and mental energy into not only recognizing it for what it is, but also making sure I don't allow it to infiltrate my process. The second that happens, I'm not being myself. And so much of my job is reliant not only on study and preparation but also confidence—it's a big part of being on television.
For somebody like me, who's a natural introvert and was not a performer growing up, most of that sort of confidence comes from preparation and work. But some of it, I had to teach myself. It's like a skill or a craft. I think people think you're either born with confidence or willingness to be on TV, or you're not, and I don't think that's true at all. It's not something that was innate to me, it's something I had to hone over time. Part of that honing has involved learning to block out noise. It's deliberate—it's not something that comes naturally to me. I think that's something we don't talk about enough: It really is a thing you have to work at. I don't mind talking about it generally, because if we don't talk about the work that goes into it, people assume you either can block [the negative feedback] out or you can't.
That makes sense. Obviously even today, most women don't typically grow up in a situation where they're encouraged to be assertive and have opinions—basically, all the things that analysts (and critics, in my case) have to do. All these years in, I still struggle with that. I still feel uncomfortable writing reviews, saying that an album or song is good or bad.
Totally, it's the same field. Criticism is different from reporting—a lot of the things that could be written about women in criticism are very similar to women in analysis. It's very different from being a reporter, which I never had a problem with.
All the requirements of being a talking head are more or less contrary to our trenchant ideals of femininity.
Being loud. Interrupting. I had to teach myself how to interrupt, which is a very important skill on radio and television, and one that I did not have. If you go back and watch when I first started doing this, I was awful at it. Producers would get in my ear and say, "Jump in. Jump in. Jump in." That's something I had to work at, which is so weird—this notion that interrupting is a skill. Even the fact that I'm framing it as interrupting, I don't think that's how a lot of men see it. They see it as asserting yourself, or jumping in. I'm like, well this is rude. There's a lot of aspects of my job that are not things that came naturally to me, and one of those things is being thick-skinned. I think it's kind of weird when people are innately thick-skinned. That usually means you're a sociopath, right? Sensitivity is humanity.
And also you get in a public-facing role because you care about what people think on some level.
Everyone who says they don't care, including athletes, 99 percent of them are lying. When I first started doing this, a single tweet could ruin my day, and I've gotten a lot better at blocking, muting, ignoring and moving on.
Do you remember the first bold take you had that was just wrong?
I mean, I didn't think Josh Allen would be an elite NFL quarterback—like a lot of people, I was absolutely wrong about that. Though it took a few years to come to fruition. Again: part of the reason I think women are uncomfortable being bold or whatever is that like, I'm afraid of being wrong. I'm afraid of getting blowback, and that is a fear that a lot of my colleagues do not share. It's something I've gotten better at over time as well. But before the internet, that blowback didn't really exist. If you were wrong on TV or radio before social media, you were just kind of wrong and people moved on. Now there's an account devoted to "cold takes," and you have to choose to focus on process.
I mean the whole Maria Taylor thing is probably the most recent depressing example of a woman in a position to be part of a critical, analytical process and says one thing that is supposedly "wrong"—which, for a man might just be like a bold take or bold opinion—which somehow becomes proof that she, and women as a group, don't belong in that process.
A lot of us live with that fear of making any mistake, even a small mistake, because there's a sense that people are rooting for you to fail. Conversely, on social media, you also see that a lot of people are rooting for you to succeed. We have a tendency to focus on the angry minority, and again, something I've had to learn is how to block that out.
Have you gotten more of the like, "Hi, I'm a sports journalism major" kinds of emails specifically from women and girls who are interested in the talking head part of sport media?
Yeah, people reach out fairly often and that's probably the most rewarding part about doing what I do. I see more women blogging and doing radio than even a few years ago, but it's a long road. I think people assume that it's hard for women to break into the space because of the toxicity on social media, or the toxicity in the industry, or because it's not a career that would occur to them because of the lack of representation—and all of that is true. But I also think, as you and I have discussed, a lot of the qualities it takes to be comfortable and eventually succeed doing TV or radio are qualities that young women are deterred from. If there's one thing I want people to know, it's that you can learn those qualities. Just because you're not comfortable interrupting or proclaiming your bold opinions now doesn't mean you won't be comfortable in a couple of years, and I think that I'm evidence of that.