March 10, 2014 6:00am PT by Marisa Guthrie
ESPN Creates New Unit for FiveThirtyEight, Grantland and ESPN Films (Exclusive)
ESPN is combining Bill Simmons' Grantland, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films and Original Content under one unit, the newly created unit called Exit 31.
ESPN will make the announcement Monday at South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. The name refers to the exit off of I-84 that leads to ESPN's Bristol. Conn., headquarters. The new unit is designed to spur content incubation beyond traditional milieus and platforms. Marie Donoghue will lead Exit 31 as senior vp of global strategy, business development and business affairs. Silver, Connor Schell (vp, ESPN Films), David Cho (senior director, strategy and business development for Grantland and FiveThirtyEight) will continue to report to Donoghue, while Simmons will now also report to her. (Simmons previously reported to digital chief John Kosner.)
"We see this new structure as a continuation of the innovation at ESPN," Donoghue told The Hollywood Reporter, adding that Silver and Simmons are likely to collaborate on future projects. "Part of that innovation is to bring outside voices and different approaches to ESPN."
Initial projects under Exit 31 include the FiveThirtyEight Films banner (a collaboration with ESPN Films that will use data analytics to create long and short-form films), The Finish Line (Grantland's ongoing series on Steve Nash's return to the Los Angeles Lakers), FIFA World Cup timed projects including 30 X 30 Soccer Stories and Inside: US Against the World (a multi-part documentary series following the U.S. men's soccer team on the road to the World Cup in Brazil), and a new Grantland video podcast network.
The FiveThrityEight site will re-launch this month and Silver has appeared on ESPN several times since the company acquired the site last summer. He offered comfort to U.S. soccer fans concerned about the team's pooling in the "Group of Death" when he revealed that statistical analysis told rosier picture than initial reports and he delivered Super Bowl weather odds for last month's game in New Jersey.
"Nate clearly wants to cover more than sports; he wants to cover elections and lifestyle and technology. Some of his coverage on politics may end up infusing how we cover March Madness. About a third of his team is focused on data visualization. So in the next year or so, I'm not doing my job if some of that doesn't infuse ESPN's (on-air) data visualization," noted Donoghue, who has been at ESPN since 1998. "We're not going to limit the content or platform areas we go into. We don't want (FiveThirtyEight) to become a partisan web site, that's not what this project is all about. And we think good storytelling is good storytelling."