Nate Silver's ESPN Deal: Statistician Plays Coy on Oscars, Staffing, On-Air Opportunities

1:58 PM PST 07/22/2013 by Michael O'Connell
Nate Silver

With his FiveThirtyEight blog departing The New York Times, Silver says he's taking cues from Grantland in terms of content and a business model -- but planning is still in the early stages before he officially makes the move later this year.

Making news of his ESPN deal official on Monday, statistician Nate Silver and ESPN President John Skipper spoke with press to address how the move of his FiveThirtyEight blog from The New York Times to the Disney-owned sports brand will be executed over the coming months.

Silver was quick to single out ESPN-backed Grantland, the sports and culture site from Bill Simmons, as his primary motivator in choosing ESPN over suitors he says he had "a little less confidence in."

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"The importance of Grantland as a successful precedent was very important to me," said Silver. "What I've done for politics at FiveThirtyEight is an approach we think is applicable to a lot of different areas. Obviously I have a sports background, but this is not just going to be a sports site or a politics site. There are lots of different potential [applications] in business and economics, weather, health, education, technology and culture. We're not necessarily going to cover all of the things at once, it's more of a horizontal approach to how we do journalism and how we make data resonate for people."

In regards to those other arenas, both Silver and Skipper were hesitant to get into too many specifics on areas of coverage, noting that it would be largely dependent on whom they hire and how many staffers they can bring on.

"We don't know exactly," said Silver, who noted that he hasn't made any hires yet. "We have a rough sense of the budget, but it's to-be-determined. I would say definitely not hundreds. … I guarantee there will be sports and politics content -- and almost for sure some economics content -- but beyond that, it might be a case where if we find the right person, we might hire on that vertical or not do so otherwise. One very valuable piece of advice Bill Simmons gave me is that they bided their time and waited to have the right voice for college football, for example. Between ESPN and ABC's resources, we don't want to cover every single story."

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ABC News president Ben Sherwood, also a part of the ESPN deal, was mentioned several times -- but outside of Nate appearing on ABC News during the next election cycle, there was no elaboration as to any on-air presence.

"We have not made any decision about Nate being on the Keith Olbermann Show, and we have not made any decisions about [him] being on the Oscars," said Skipper. "We'll figure out when we're going to do something on television, but you should not assume anything."

The addition of Silver comes just a week after ESPN's hiring of another marquee personality in Olbermann, as the network girds for upcoming competition from Fox Sports 1.

Silver, who has done Oscar predictions before, offered little on whether or how he would continue -- but he did seem open to forecasting other areas of entertainment if he felt he could do it well.

"We don't necessarily want to delve into areas where we aren't going to add a fair amount of value, and we definitely don't want to create the perception that we can predict everything" added Silver, pointing to television ratings as one possible arena. "It's more about thinking of data in a robust way. If we think we can have a good model or have fun with it, then we'll do it.

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FiveThirtyEight will stay at The New York Times through the end of August, says Skipper, and a full launch under the ESPN banner likely won't come for several months after that. Silver says he'll spend the interim, which will include the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial race, forecasting from a Tumblr or some other vehicle for a soft launch.

"I plan on spending a bunch of time with Bill [Simmons] in the coming months," says Silver, noting it may take up to a year before they're fully up and running. "It's a long-term commitment."

Terms of the deal, including the length and dollar amount, were not disclosed. But Skipper confirmed that this partnership differs from Silver's previous licensing agreement with the Times in that ESPN will now own the URL and name FiveThirtyEight.

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