Steve Kornacki has a new job that lets him keep his old uniform.
MSNBC viewers revere the khaki-and-dress-shirt-clad correspondent’s ability to synthesize reams of polling data that helps them understand the twists and turns of various elections. Just a month ago, Kornacki manipulated a giant touch screen during hours and hours of MSNBC 2020 election coverage — and helped millions of anxious viewers get through one of the most harrowing political events in recent memory.
Now he’s hoping to do the same for football fans.
Kornacki just finished a second week of Sunday duty for NBC Sports, making regular appearances on ”Football Night in America” and the halftime show of ”Sunday Night Football.” He’s not looking at how many votes Trump or Biden may have left in Arizona’s Maricopa County. He’s examining the potential for the Miami Dolphins or Baltimore Ravens to reach the playoffs. “There’s a real natural overlap between doing ‘Road to 270’ scenarios and a ‘Road to the Playoffs’,” says Kornacki, in an interview after his most recent football broadcast.
On Sunday, he was a highlight. “You’ve got the Steelers. You’ve got the Bills. But we’ve got Kornacki,” “Football Night” regular Liam McHugh told viewers. NBC even teased a looming Kornacki appearance before a commercial break. On screen, Kornacki managed to work his way through some technical glitches, as the giant monitor he was using for some reason didn’t recognize his efforts to scrawl some numbers on it. “That was supposed to be a ‘5,’” he explained, well-versed in keeping a program going when technology becomes temperamental.
NBC Sports intends to use him for the rest of the season.
At first glance, pairing an energetic political correspondent with NBC football pre-game regulars like Tony Dungy or McHugh might seem unorthodox. It’s not the first time football fans have been asked to assimilate something atypical. ABC added comedian Dennis Miller to “Monday Night Football,’ for a few seasons starting in 2000. ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to offer essays for “Sunday NFL Countdown” in 2003, an idea that collapsed after the conservative radio commentator touched on race when discussing ab Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Kornacki appears in NBC’s football studio in Stamford, Conn., as fans have developed a stronger taste for sports data. They use it to play fantasy football. And they see it on screen as more sports programmers move to provide information about odds for sports betting.
“I think the numbers game is a big part of what’s going on in sports right now,” says Sam Flood, NBC Sports’ executive producer and president of production, in an interview “There’s a mass phobia for lot of people in the country, but then you find someone like Steve who can make sense of the numbers in a way that translates to the everyman or woman. It doesn’t feel intimidating.”
Some data gurus have gone on to dip into sports as well. Walt Disney’s FiveThirtyEight, the statistical-analysis site run by Nate Silver, has a section devoted to sports that dives deep into football and basketball.
“The average news consumer’s fluency in talking about polling, thinking about polling — it’s night and day compared to a generation ago,” says Kornacki.
Kornacki joins the football broadcasts as NBCUniversal and other media companies are working furiously to impress the NFL. The league and its broadcast partners are in the midst of critical talks to renew football rights, many of which lapse after the 2022 season. The NFL has told its media partners that it’s eager to find ways to bring new viewers to the sport. ViacomCBS, for example,,is testing a broadcast for kids on its cable outlet Nickelodeon.
Kornacki may serve a similar purpose, Flood suggests. “He can bring some new eyeballs from people who are interested in his khaki pants and his performance on the news side — and might be interested in sampling some football.”
NBC newsroom personnel have filled in behind the sports desk in the past. Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira subbed for an ailing Bob Costas during NBC’s primetime coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Costas was sidelined by an eye infection.
Kornacki has worked at NBCUniversal since 2012, but his most recent bout of election coverage sparked the interest of executives at NBC Sports. Greg Hughes, the unit’s senior vice president of communications, suggested asking if Kornacki, known to be a football fan, might be interested in bringing his analysis over from the MSNBC studios. NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua reached out to NBC News Group Chairman Cesar Conde and MSNBC President Phil Griffin. “My reaction was, yeah, of course,” says Kornacki.
He had a little anxiety about taking on the new role. Would football fans view him as credible? He has taken the approach of “I’m going to make sense of it, just as you are. I’m a fan of it, just like you are,” and hopes viewers pick up the vibe.
Talking about NFL teams’ chances for the playoffs gives Kornacki Election Night flashbacks. MSNBC had to make certain viewers understood that early voting might skew the initial results and that one candidate’s lead early in the proceedings might not last over the course of the evening. Now he is explaining to his audience that even when teams win for the week, their next games might hurt their chances of moving forward. “I feel like there’s a big Election Night parallel, where you are the mercy of external events,” he says.
He can’t stay with NBC Sports for too long, His Sunday tenure should end before the January 5th special elections in Georgia, when news viewers will likely focus on two different races that will determine which political party gains control of the U.S. Senate. He’s open to returning if NBC Sports would like him to do so. Meanwhile, Kornacki is enjoying a new job that doesn’t require a whole new wardrobe.
Or maybe it will. Some viewers on Sunday felt Kornacki was wearing a darker khaki than the norm. “I have, like, four of the same pants from the election,” says Kornacki. “Maybe they are a little cleaner — I don’t know.”