How Mina Kimes became ESPN’s most unlikely star

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“But sometimes, just having a thing to talk about – a meaningless, brutish, occasionally wonderful thing – is enough. Actually, it’s more than enough. It makes me unspeakably happy. The truth is, I wish the season would never end.”

-Mina Kimes on football in a 2014 Tumblr post that helped her land her ESPN job.

There is really no formula for football phenoms. This is no truer than in the case of Mina Kimes.

No one could see Mina’s football life. Not even Mina.  

Mina is one of the stars of maybe ESPN’s best show, “NFL Live.” While Laura Rutledge hosts, the rest of the analysts are former players. Then there is Mina.

“People don’t expect a tiny Asian woman to be talking about D-line stunts,” Dominique Foxworth, former NFL cornerback, fellow ESPN analyst and Mina’s good friend says. 

What Mina is doing on ESPN is something that hasn’t been done. Forget that she is a “tiny Asian woman” — she is the first successful major NFL TV studio analyst who never played, coached or was in a front office. 

Male or female. 

There are plenty of reporters, insiders, hot takers and total fakers on sports television. But Mina, 36, is analyzing. She’s very good.

Her spots have the precision of a Cooper Kupp route. Her opinions — which marry analytics with hours and hours of film study a week — are not hot takes. 

Instead, they feel as if they are put in an oven at 375 for 45 minutes, seasoned just right and often topped with a dash of a laugh. 

She makes the complexities of football easier to understand.

“She’s really good at relating,” Foxworth says.

Moving Childhood

Mina Kimes at 6 years old
Mina Kimes at 6 years old
Courtesy of Mina Kimes

Mina’s dad, Peter, grew up in Seattle, while her mom, Sun Min, was raised in Seoul with a utopian view of the United States that was built on watching “Little House on the Prairie,” “Bonanza” and “Gone with the Wind.” 

In the late 1970s, they met when Peter, now a retired Air Force major, was stationed in Korea. Soon after, they were married. 

Since Mina was a military kid, moving was as much a part of her life as brushing her teeth. She was born in Omaha (NE), moved to San Pedro (CA), relocated to Ann Arbor (MI), returned to San Pedro, headed to Ashburn (Va) and finally, for high school, settled outside of Phoenix, in Gilbert (AZ). The list reads like that of a football coach’s family.

Mina was precocious as a little girl. When she was in preschool, the teacher called her mom to tell her that the other 3-year-olds were looking at the pictures of the butterfly book, while Mina would read the words. She had a special skill, akin to a receiver with great speed. 

Her favorite place in the world was the library. She read so much that her mom would sometimes bribe her with sweets to encourage her to do something else. 

She loved to escape. Her favorite elementary book was “Phantom Tollbooth.” The classic is about how an unsettled boy named Milo finds a mysterious tollbooth that transports him into a magical adventure. 

“I always loved reading about things that never could happen in real life,” Mina says.

Mina and her brother Isaac with dad Peter.
Mina and her brother Isaac with dad Peter.
Courtesy of Mina Kimes

As she went from town to town, it became quite natural for her to quickly make friends when the school year started, which was something of a necessity if she wanted anyone at her birthday parties in early September.  

She learned to adapt, sort of like how a defensive coordinator makes halftime adjustments. 

Football was part of Mina’s childhood. Her family rooted for dad’s Seahawks and spent summers in Seattle. According to Mina’s mom, she could throw a football pretty well. In fact, she was good enough that her dad once looked into starting a team for girls (it didn’t happen). She ended up playing varsity high school soccer.

In Mina’s 2014 Tumblr post that ESPN eventually saw, Mina described herself as “intense and competitive.” Her dad supported these traits, even if in the late ‘80s and ‘90s those were still more associated with males.

Her dad had a “50-point plan” for college. There were goals. She executed, like a quarterback following the offensive coordinator’s instructions to perfection.

She got a 1560 out of 1600 on the SATs. She sheepishly says she went “to college in Connecticut.” 

A little school called Yale.

The road to ESPN

At college in Connecticut, Mina majored in English, but she had no real designs on being a journalist or working in sports. She never worked on the Yale paper. The bond with her father over football had receded. 

In the summer after her freshman year, Mina taught fourth graders in Baltimore.

Mina Kimes is one of ESPN's rising stars
Mina Kimes is one of ESPN’s rising stars
Mina Kimes on Instagram

“I cannot stress enough how bad I was at that; especially the disciplining side of it,” Mina says.

Following her sophomore year, she interned with the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, where she “read a lot of books that won’t get published.”

Finally, after her junior year, she interned at Fortune Small Business. This launched her career that led to a full-time job as a writer. She worked at Fortune for six years, doing investigative reporting.

Between Fortune and a year at Bloomberg, she made a name for herself to the point that The New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editor David Remnick took a meeting with her. She was on the map. 


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As her investigative business career was taking off, Mina fell in love with football again. In the Tumblr post that helped lead to the ESPN job, she said she called a friend of a friend of hers on a whim to watch a game. They met up at a bar to root on the Seahawks. She didn’t have much to say about the action, but she kept going back. 

Soon enough she would be on the phone with her dad, picking up the conversation about the Seahawks and the NFL. They had their thing to talk about again.

She started – wouldn’t you know it? – reading everything; especially folks like Bill Barnwell, Peter King and Danny Kelly, who was then a Seahawks blogger. She became active on Twitter, making friends there, including Barnwell, and she ended up on his podcast. 

She tried to learn everything about the sport. When Mina goes in, she goes all in. 

“I am a complete-ist,” Mina says.

In 2014, ESPN editors Scott Burton and Megan Greenwell noticed Kimes’ work, including the above mentioned Tumblr post that had been republished on Slate. ESPN hired her to write features. She stood out, penning pieces on Drew Brees, Michael and Marcellus Bennett and South Korean bat flips.

Mina Kimes with ESPN basketball host Malika Andrews
Mina Kimes with ESPN basketball host Malika Andrews
WireImage

In 2015, she married music producer Nick Sylvester. They have a dog, Lenny.

By 2016, ESPN digital audio program director Louise Cornetta wanted Kimes to do a fantasy football show with Eric Karabell and Dave Rothenberg. She was nervous about sharing her opinions to a national audience, fearful of being criticized and the backlash that comes with it. Cornetta asked Rothenberg to try to convince a hesitant Mina. 

“Maybe it will balloon to something bigger,” Rothenberg told her.

She did it, going on to do another radio show with Foxworth and Clinton Yates. 

She and Foxworth would become great friends. She would volley questions about the game to him. She dove deeper and deeper into understanding the complexities of the sport, combining her advanced skill of learning information through reading with watching film and tying it all together with analytics. 

“The understanding of the game is just from effort and interest,” Foxworth said. 

Soon she was on “Around The Horn” and eventually guest-hosting shows like Dan Le Batard’s old “Highly Questionable” and “PTI.” It was there, with people like Le Batard encouraging her, that she would learn to push the nerves to the side and truly be herself on-air.  

Before last season, ESPN made her an NFL analyst. She gets in and out of points on a dime.

“Some of our players can be verbose,” Lydell King, the coordinating producer of ‘NFL Live,” says.

“Time management is always a challenge with them. Mina knows that her approach can be complicated if she allows it to be. She’s pretty efficient.”

Her style has a friendly, neighborly feel to it, which might be because it’s quite possible she lived next to half the audience at one time or another. 

In a world of phonies, the people who work with Kimes consistently mention her kindness, but also her potential.

“She’s smart, knowledgeable and, when required, she’ll bust your chops as well as anyone,” ESPN personality Frank Isola, who guest hosts “PTI” with Kimes, says. “That combination works for TV and social media. But those same skills work when she eventually lands an NFL front office job.”

An NFL front office

The only one who might not think Mina is going to end up in a front office is Mina herself. 

“I don’t think I have the qualifications right now,” Mina says.

She has advocates everywhere, including former Pro Bowl center and ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday, who reaches out to her to understand some analytics. 

“The sky’s the limit on-air,” Saturday says. “I think she could work for a team. I think she sees the games from an analytics perspective as well as anybody. We are coming to a place in our game where you can use analytics for decision-making in games and that sort of thing, but (also) players and player performance.”

Mina Kimes with her brother Isaac on ESPN's set.
Mina Kimes with her brother Isaac on ESPN’s set.
Courtesy of Sun Min Kimes

It might seem outlandish at first, but it actually is not at all. The overall trend in sports is toward Ivy League-educated executives. She would actually seem like a natural extension.

“I think if we asked her to be a scout or a general manager, she could fill that bucket, better than most,” King says. 

Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t. But no one saw her being an NFL pundit.

“I honestly didn’t think she would do this because I know her strong suit is writing and reading,” her mom says.

The thing about Mina is this — she is a Milo. In her favorite childhood book, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” Milo walked in the tollbooth and opened up a whole new life, where the impossible happens. 

Mina has stepped into the Phantom Tollbooth. She has already done things that had never happened before.

“Gosh, I wish I could tell you that there was a real deliberate deliberateness to all of this,” Mina says. “But it’s kind of been one thing randomly, like sprouting off a branch, and then that branch spreads off another branch and then here I am.”

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