ESPN's Pivot Away From Politics May Include FiveThirtyEight Sale

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The sports network may part with its in-demand political star Nate Silver amid a broader move from verticals.

How long will Nate Silver stay at ESPN? When news broke Jan. 25 that the Disney-owned network was exploring options to sell off the political stats guru's FiveThirtyEight vertical, the first reaction from many analysts was: Why was it bought in the first place?

Within Disney, the acquisition has long been viewed as a "misstep," an insider says. At a time when analytics are driving much of the conversation around sports, not enough has been done to incorporate Silver or the site's 40-plus-person staff into the company's vast sports assets. "There was zero integration," another ESPN insider says. "They stayed on their island and slowly became less and less relevant."

After a three-year contract at The New York Times expired, ESPN bought Silver's site in 2013 with the goal of applying its statistical model to sectors beyond sports and politics. The 2012 election in particular defined Silver's reputation as an Electoral College soothsayer; he correctly predicted the outcomes of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

But ESPN's efforts to broaden out FiveThirtyEight didn't exactly catch on. After hitting 21 million monthly uniques in November 2016, it settled into a monthly average between 5 million and 7 million, according to comScore. And now the company is exploring "a variety of options for the future" of the site.

Of course, the impending divestiture comes as ESPN has been criticized for politicizing sports, a somewhat spurious argument given the not infrequent intersection of sports and politics.

Former ESPN president John Skipper cultivated the verticals — including Bill Simmons' pop culture site Grantland (since shuttered) and race and culture site The Undefeated (going strong) — as a way to attract and grow talent. Nevertheless, ESPN has of late been refocusing its efforts on sports. (Discussions about FiveThirtyEight's future were afoot before Skipper's abrupt resignation last December.)

The Big Lead, which first reported a possible sale of FiveThirtyEight, noted that Atlantic Media — publisher of The Atlantic magazine — is among the potential suitors. There are also discussions to put FiveThirtyEight under the ABC News umbrella. Certainly either destination, like the Times, seems in a much better position to exploit Silver's DNA in politics.

The discussions around FiveThirtyEight come amid Disney's proposed $52.4 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox's assets. Many analysts expect the Department of Justice review to go smoothly — unlike the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner, in which CNN has become something of a pawn.

Still, says eMarketer analyst Paul Verna, "They're subject to the vagaries of what the Trump administration is going to say or do on any given day. If I were running one of these two media properties, I would not bring any additional baggage."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.