SXSW: Nate Silver and Bill Simmons Reveal How ESPN Won FiveThirtyEight

4:23 PM PST 03/08/2014 by Debbie Emery
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Nate Silver

From how the New York Times dropped the ball on the deal to Bill Simmons’ dad chatting with Silver at the NBA Finals, the pair dished on the process at SXSW.

Statistician Nate Silver and Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons joined forces on Saturday at the South by Southwest panel to not only announce the March 17 launch date of FiveThirtyEight, but also to dish on details of the new site and reveal how the deal with ESPN became reality.

After confirming that it will launch on St. Patrick’s Day, Silver admitted: "It is only going to be 75 percent ready. You can only learn in the real environment,” he said, explaining that he’s compiled “a very quantitative and geeky team of writers, and we want editors who challenge us. We have 20 people so far, in the hope that some will become stars."

The analytical blogger and the laid-back Boston sports guy contrasted and complimented each other onstage as they focused on the topic of personal branding for the SXsports session.

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After making a surprise exit from the New York Times eight months ago, Silver revealed how the data-driven journalism site FiveThirtyEight found a home on ESPN. "We looked at eight or 12 media options. The advantage of major media brands is that they can get major advertisers," he revealed, adding that they have a new sponsor that he can’t name yet.

With Simmons making an apt sports analogy, comparing powerhouse ESPN "to the Yankees or Manchester United," where they get the best people, Silver said: "I got a lot more quality time with these folks than I did with my old bosses at the New York Times," who were going through a lot of changes at the time. "There was a lot of momentum lost. It was a combination of them being a little slow on their feet," he explained.

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"I can’t believe they didn’t figure out a way to keep you," Simmons marveled, explaining that it is an example of what is happening in the newspaper industry overall. "ESPN makes more sense -- there's synergy," Silver responded. "The Times may have made the right decision for the wrong reason."

Before they took to the stage, Simmons told The Hollywood Reporter how his father had played a part in the important decision.

"Right when Nate was deciding what to do, he happened to be in San Antonio and he was going to the [NBA Finals] game, and my dad got two tickets from the NBA, so we hooked him up with the passes and things like that. It's when he kind of realized that it would be really cool to work for ESPN.

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"It takes a lot of shit sometimes, but it’s a really successful company that has really smart, accomplished people behind," he explained. "The more people he [Silver] met, especially at the higher-up level, the light bulb seemed to go off. My dad sat next to him at the game and was telling him about what my experience had been like at ESPN and the people I had met there. I always felt like Nate was going to do the right thing. He's smart and is one of those guys who weighs the percentages – ‘I have a 58 percent chance of succeeding here and a 42 percent chance of succeeding here.'

"That’s just how he is. He wasn't going to roll the dice. He was going to find the best chance to win and the place that was financially right."

In his typical methodical way, the FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief went on to break down the theme and structure of the new site, whose logo will be a fox, inspired by the essay by Isaiah Berlin in which the hedgehog focuses on one response but the fox knows many things.

"Being foxy is good. Our cushion is data journalism. To us that means a lot of different things -- analysis, analytics, numerate reporting. There are five verticals -- sports (about "20 percent"), politics, economics, science and lifestyle. This is a horizontal approach," said Silver, who is known by many for his political coverage but revealed: "My history was not in politics. I was writing about sports for Baseball Prospectus.

"We will be writing about other things. It is being repositioned as a data journalism site rather than a politics site. We don't want to do partisan commentary. We don't want to do quick takes. I think there is a way to write about politics without slanting it either way. Some news organizations were terrified of being called out for being liberal, conservative or whatever else. I don't give a shit," he emphasized.

"Both of us believe in slow journalism,” Silver said of his and Simmons' approaches. "We believe in differentiating on the basis of quality people who have unique voices who can bring a different angle. That takes time."

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While FiveThirtyEight will have a very different voice from the sports and pop culture of Grantland, Silver is going to learn from its successes and blunders. "We made so many mistakes in the first few months of Grantland. I think you are going to find it is just more fun being with ESPN. You become the dad, but it's the dad in an '80s sitcom," Simmons said. 

Without the umbrella of ESPN, "I would have failed on my own. All this little office stuff -- if I was on my own, I would have ended up in drug rehab!" he joked.

Before the close of the popular panel, Simmons had a big announcement of his own revealing that Grantland is "launching video podcast network," via YouTube.

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"Nate is building a studio in New York City and that’s going to give Grantland writers there somewhere to go to film something cool. We are looking into TV stuff, like an Adult Swim-type thing," he revealed.

"If we had that this week, we could have had episode two of the Steve Nash series. There are no games on Sunday night, so that could be a natural outcome of it.

"We're blowing up the podcasts more than ever -- we're really figuring out that side of it," Simmons told THR. "This is a big year for us. We hit the three-year anniversary in June and we like where we are at the moment. The goal is to take six or seven big swings on top of that," he said, with the key being visibility.

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