Last fall, Peter King and Sports Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Stone insisted that The MMQB, the football vertical the magazine created for King five years ago, was built to survive even if King were to ever leave. Now, with King headed to NBC, we get to see how that might work.
First things first, based on conversations with multiple people at SI: There will not be a mass exodus of MMQB staffers following King out the door, as has been speculated. A handful of MMQBers have contracts that are set to expire in the months ahead—Albert Breer’s deal is up June 1—but Stone said he’s interested in retaining them. Things can always change, but those staffers are at least interested in (if not hopeful about) staying.
King’s last day at SI will be June 1, the 29th anniversary of his first day at the magazine. He said the pending sale of SI did not influence his decision. King, 60, simply wanted to scale back; as far back as last summer, he told Stone he wanted to work “70 percent less” once his contract expired at the end of March. (King has since continued to work on an at-will basis, under the same terms as his previous deal.)
SI was amenable to carving out a smaller role for King, to the extent the magazine was willing to put it into writing that he wouldn’t have to do a thing other than write his weekly Monday Morning Quarterback column. The problem, for King, is how involved he is with virtually every aspect of The MMQB’s operation, from writing and reporting to spitballing story ideas to guiding and managing the staff to jumping on breaking news to rounding up sponsors (in an odd breakdown of the firewall between editorial and advertising).
Had he stayed at SI, in any capacity, King felt he wouldn’t have been able to divorce himself from every little detail of running the shop. “There was nothing, nothing, nothing remotely wrong with my job,” King told me on Thursday, barely an hour after his decision was announced, “other than the fact that I really don’t want to do the NFL 24/7.”
At NBC, King will still write his weekly Monday morning column, though it may not be exactly the same as the 8,000-word treatises he churned out each week for The MMQB. King will also do four to six broadcast features per year that will air during the Sunday Night Football pregame show, on which he has already had some kind of presence since 2006. King reportedly earned upwards of $1.5 million per year at SI, and he acknowledged he will be taking a pay cut by going to NBC.
King had another suitor. Paul Fichtenbaum, the former SI editor-in-chief, approached King about a job at The Athletic, where Fichtenbaum is now the chief content officer. Fichtenbaum has already poached a handful of SI personnel, and he even dangled the possibility of publishing King’s column outside The Athletic’s paywall. King ultimately chose NBC because of, as he put it, “the chance to do a smattering of TV at the highest level.”
King remains intensely loyal to SI. He had turned down even more lucrative offers in the past to stay. He also sometimes didn’t submit all of his expenses—not because that’s what was required of him, but because he didn’t want to burden the company. Another reason he cited for leaving was the chance to let the current staff do its best work, which includes the opportunity to travel to league events to cultivate sources. Though King and Breer were sent to the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando, Fla., in March, one other staffer who insisted on also going had to pay out of pocket to make it happen, though that staffer did later get reimbursed for airfare.
SI is for sale, with the first round of bids expected to conclude next Friday. King insisted the pending sale by parent company Meredith had nothing to do with his decision. Internally, there is optimism about the prospective buyer pool, especially after Meredith CEO Tom Harty recently told the staffs at SI, Fortune, and Time in separate meetings that he had no interest in selling to American Media Inc.’s David Pecker, whose holdings include the National Enquirer.
Meredith has also shown an inclination to strengthen the SI franchise in advance of the sale; the magazine has even made three recent hires (including Deadspin’s Emma Baccellieri), with another expected shortly. Those hires would have been made whether King stayed or not. The company also would have been willing to do what it took to retain King, Chris Stone told me, had King not been so set on leaving. That King is leaving as the sale process is ramping up is considered less than optimal internally—“The timing’s not perfect,” one source said—but King’s departure does free up significant resources for SI to invest in possible new hires or infrastructure improvements.
What does all of this mean for those left at The MMQB? Mark Mravic, the site’s executive editor, will stay on in that role, and he’s expected to be in charge of shaping coverage. King had already ceded much of the site’s administrative duties (including budget and travel) to Mravic about a year ago. Beyond that, no one person is expected to take over as the face of the site, as King had been. (No, it will not become The MMQB with Albert Breer.) The MMQB had merged with SI.com nearly two years ago, and Stone said “I think those lines will become completely blurred” in the months ahead.
The biggest decision will be how to handle that Monday morning news hole that will still house King’s column for the next four weeks. The feeling is that it may not be prudent to replicate King’s approach, especially because King will continue to do something similar over at NBC. Moving Breer’s column to that spot is a possibility, especially given Breer’s insider-y credentials. Conor Orr, who is viewed as something of a rising star internally, also could have a role on Monday mornings. A decision is expected by July 1.