In launching his homegrown website eight years ago, Mike Florio, a West Virginia labor lawyer and sharp-witted football fan, created a way to give his two cents on the NFL.
Now, NBC is going to pay him a lot more than that.
The network is expected to announce today that it has formed a wide-ranging partnership with Florio’s Profootballtalk.com -- known as PFT to its legions of readers -- with plans to make it a permanent feature at the top of the NBC Sports site. Terms of the deal have not been announced.
The marriage of an NFL broadcast partner and PFT is an interesting one, because Florio’s site has anything but a starched, corporate feel. It keeps, for instance, a running tally of players who have been arrested.
NBC recognizes that unvarnished, unflinching approach as PFT’s appeal.
“The sites that are most successful are the ones that have the most unique voices, and I think Mike definitely has one of the most unique voices,” said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics. “I can’t think of another pro football website that has the unique following in such large numbers that Mike does. I’d be a fool if I tried to change that.”
Florio’s isn’t simply a case of a couch potato finding a fortune between the cushions. He has worked hard for this, and PFT has emerged in recent years as a popular resource for fans, media and NFL insiders alike. Florio and his small group of freelance writers collect and rewrite stories from newspapers and websites, but also break their own news, chase down rumors and crack wise on the nation’s most popular sports league.
“We look at it as a high-impact media platform,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. “It’s phenomenal what he created, and it’s very clear that most people in the business look at it. It has impact.”
According to Alexa.com, which tracks Internet traffic patterns, PFT’s online audience outnumbers that of most newspapers and sports sites. In March, when interest in the site spiked with the start of free agency, PFT attracted 1.7 million unique visitors and 25 million page views.
Al Michaels, play-by-play man for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” said he checks the site almost daily, and sometimes several times a day.
“Over the past couple of years, he’s been as wired into the NFL as anybody,” Michaels said. “It’s not that he gets every single thing right, but he’s clearly got a really good pipeline for information.”
Florio will still own the website but has sold exclusive rights to its content to NBC.
With the mind of a lawyer and the conversational, biting tone of the wiseacre at the next bar stool, Florio updates his site a dozen or more times a day, analyzing everything from what minor transactions might portend, to emerging trends, to the latest player hauled off in handcuffs.
“I try to create the place where I would want to spend my time if I was on the other side of the screen,” said Florio, 44. “Where would I want to get my information about the NFL? What stories would be interesting to me and how would I want it to be presented? Would I want it to be just a cold, dry recitation of the facts, or would I want it to be something that makes me think, that makes me upset, that stirs my opinions and makes me laugh from time to time?”
The stories aren’t always on the mark. The site’s most memorable gaffe came Jan. 25, 2007, when, after receiving a flurry of tips from e-mailers, Florio rushed to post a story headlined: “Is Terry Bradshaw Dead?”
The rumor, obviously erroneous, was first reported as that by a couple of TV stations in Shreveport, La., but briefly gained major momentum when PFT reported it. (As it turned out, someone misheard a radio report that there had been a fatal car accident on the Terry Bradshaw Passway in Shreveport.) Minutes later, after getting the story straight, Florio replaced that headline with: “Terry Is Fine,” but by that time, critics of his site had more ammunition than they might ever need.
“That mistake,” Florio jokes, “will go on my tombstone.”
Florio does most of his writing on his laptop from his den in tiny Bridgeport, W.Va., a town of 7,800 about a 90-minute drive south of Pittsburgh. His 36-inch TV is on throughout the day, tuned to either something football-related, news or “Seinfeld” reruns (he quotes that sitcom with almost religious reverence), and the phone calls and e-mails pour in at a staggering rate.
When the rest of the sports world was paying relatively little heed to the Michael Vick dogfighting accusations, Florio was three steps ahead, talking about how significant the fallout could be. When a group of players who had tested positive for a steroids masking agent were protesting their suspensions, Florio cut through the legalese to explain it in layman’s terms.
“I’ve had cases that have dealt with those very issues,” he said. “So at those times, having a law background has been very helpful. . . . [But] I used to feel horribly inadequate because I had zero journalism training.”
After earning a degree in engineering from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Florio went to law school and worked at two firms before hanging his own shingle. Along the way, he wrote a football-based novel that he had trouble getting anyone to publish. Eventually, he wound up writing NFL stories and observations for various websites, usually for free. That led to him forming PFT in 2001, and since 2007 he has worked with business partner Larry Mazza, all the while continuing to practice law.
Almost a decade later, he has an arrangement with NBC substantial enough that he is giving up his legal practice for good, a decision he admits “has been the source of a lot of worrying and fretting by me because I love practicing law.”
Florio’s new fear is that writing for his site, which never felt like actual work to him before, might start feeling that way. Then again, he quipped, maybe that’s how it should be.
“I come from the land of coal mining and steel mills,” he said. “You’re supposed to hate your job.”