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Hey, Sports Fans, It’s Time For Math Class

18 minute read

Read Nate Silver’s advice on hiring employees.

On the day ESPN first blinked to life in 1979, it aired a slow-pitch softball game. Things have changed since then. ESPN has become not only, as its slogan proclaims, the Worldwide Leader in Sports, but more broadly one of the most influential players in the news business. Look at its ledger: ESPN has seven U.S. cable networks, 24 international stations, 350 full-time radio affiliates, 7,000 employees, one magazine, 60 million monthly visitors online, just under 100 million households that pay cable providers for its products and an estimated annual revenue of more than $9 billion (out of which, by the way, comes a reported 45% of the Walt Disney Co.’s operating income). That’s almost six times the revenue of the New York Times Co. and nearly double the web traffic of CBS Sports or Fox Sports.

Later this month, ESPN will add a new number: FiveThirtyEight. That’s when the data-crunching digital publication of that name, run by 36-year-old statistician Nate Silver, makes its debut as an ESPN property. Silver’s facility with figures first brought him to everyone’s attention in 2008, when his online forecast correctly called 49 of 50 states in the U.S. presidential election. (FiveThirtyEight takes its name from the number of electoral votes up for grabs every four years.) In 2012, Silver’s cool reading of the presidential campaign helped Democrats through sleepless October nights. He accurately projected results in all 50 states, all the while merrily tweaking the traditional press for what he reckoned was a blinkered, overheated representation of how elections work.

Now ESPN is turning to Silver for a play bigger than sports. Silver’s worldview, in which empiricism trumps experts and numbers rout narratives, has spread far and wide in an age eager to learn what data has to say about modern life. Today we’re offered more accessible information than ever before, and contemporary computing power renders the same data more easily harnessed, studied and presented. Encouraged by Silver and his analytical allies, many now want hard facts instead of anecdotes and intuitions. With the right humans pushing the right buttons, numbers tell stories no storyteller ever could. And those stories, because of their scientific imprimatur, have audiences especially rapt.

In other words, Silver is both cause and effect of our data mania–and his new website has the potential to change how we think not just about politics and sports, his usual bailiwicks, but also about fistfuls of other concerns. Thanks to Silver, ESPN for the first time employs a chief economics writer. That’s a long way from slow-pitch softball.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

Silver considers himself a born outsider: “I have very deep ingrained antiestablishment instincts. I’ve felt that way from when I was 6 years old.” That view manifests itself in his work. He evangelizes on behalf of data and statistics in a profession where they have historically had little place and then frets about the overuse of numbers. He is a nerd who didn’t care much for school and a businessman who once ditched his full-time job to play online poker. He is a gay sportswriter.

Silver, the older of two, was born and raised in East Lansing, Mich. His father taught political science at Michigan State, while his mother raised hell in neighborhood politics. Silver says he was a “weird kid” and a late bloomer. In high school he threw himself into the student newspaper and debate, winning a state championship his junior year. He didn’t really care for classes. “I’m not a valedictorian type,” he says. “There are more worthwhile things to do than acing tests.”

Afterward, he headed to the University of Chicago, where he studied economics and occasionally wrote for the newspaper. His life changed when he spent his junior year abroad in London, where he decided to come out of the closet. He was 20. He loved life there. He went out all the time. But his senior year back in Chicago was gloomy by comparison and was made no better after graduation when he accepted a $55,000-a-year consulting gig at KPMG, one of the Big Four auditors.

“Those weren’t the happiest days of my life,” Silver says. He would do mind-numbing work in Excel all day, then stay out all night and go in the next day to do the same thing over again. Soon enough, he quit the job to work for Baseball Prospectus, a website (and annual print publication) for which he forecast players’ seasons, and to play online poker. At cards, he made a few hundred thousand dollars, while Baseball Prospectus’ profile only grew.

Silver was content to juggle stats and poker until 2006, when Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which made it nearly impossible to deposit money in an online gambling account. He found himself newly curious about the political process that had let such legislation pass unopposed in the Senate, hitting his livelihood where it hurt. Before too long, he was blogging about the 2008 Democratic primary at the liberal site Daily Kos, and after the general election, renown came for good.

In 2009 he moved to New York City with his longtime partner Robert Gauldin, a graphic designer. In Chicago, Silver had seen his friends marry off and retreat to the suburbs–a lifestyle that had always repelled him and still does, despite the march of gay marriage throughout the states. “There are some gay people who will say, ‘Our problems are solved! Now let’s go be the bourgeoisie!’ But we should really be suspicious of suddenly acting like everyone else.”

Silver loves the pleasant accumulation of data. One of his most memorable projects, a ranking of New York City’s top 50 neighborhoods, ran in New York magazine in 2010. Each neighborhood’s rating came from a composite of 12 variables (among them: housing cost, safety, restaurants and creative capital), all of which took advantage of public data. Sure beats interviews in the Saturday paper with a few real estate agents who think a neighborhood has turned newly “hot.”

Spend enough time around Silver, and he will share the Greek poet Archilochus’ tale of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Silver uses philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation, which gives the fox the edge. Silver often finds his interlocutors to have hedgehog traits. In 2012, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough told Silver that his forecast of an Obama victory was far too confident, because Scarborough, not Silver, knew campaigns, and campaigns were close. Silver won that round, and a hedgehog went down.

Yet Silver chafed against his narrow elections-and-polling confines at his most recent previous employer, the New York Times, which served as FiveThirtyEight’s home from 2010 until 2013. He’s a big thinker: he draws out the last syllable of idea, “eye-dee-yuh.” Silver wanted to reinject truth and accountability into all kinds of journalism, he wanted to bring a generation of data journalists under his tent so that they might preach their secular gospel loudly, he wanted to do this in every medium imaginable (words, graphics, interactive widgets, video, audio), and all the while he wanted his team to have fun with it.

It’s a lot to ask. And for it, Silver decided to ditch the newsroom behind the Pentagon Papers for the shop that brought you booyah and the Budweiser Hot Seat.

Golden Goose

It’s a funny thing about ESPN: the operation evidently can’t not make money. Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012 called it the Everywhere Sports Profit Network. Heading toward its 35th anniversary, ESPN has by now grown into a goose so golden as to make Mickey Mouse, its corporate compatriot, appear a shiftless layabout by comparison. (Disclosure: Time’s parent company, Time Inc., also publishes SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which competes with ESPN’s magazine and website.)

The business proposition works simply enough. ESPN has broadcast-rights deals for many of the sporting events people want to see: the NBA, Monday Night Football, Major League Baseball and much of the schedule in major college football and basketball. This gives ESPN incredible leverage over the cable and satellite providers with which it negotiates for carriage agreements. Any household with a sports fan in its midst would hesitate to buy a subscription that did not include ESPN, and bundling in the cable industry ensures that few other subscribers have a chance to get by without it either. Every American with a decent cable package, sports fan or not, will pay more than $70 for ESPN in 2014, according to a recent estimate from research firm SNL Kagan. Those billions in subscriptions are supported by an estimated $1.8 billion in annual ad revenue. Until something comes along to break the cycle–FCC regulation or, more likely, widespread cord cutting–ESPN’s war chest will not shrink.

All of which is to say that the network has no problem footing the bill for another news operation, especially one that will confer upon the Worldwide Leader seriousness and stature among the smart set. ESPN cares. “It’s much more strategic than financial,” says John Skipper, ESPN’s president since 2012. “We want lots and lots of people to think that ESPN is the best place for what they’re interested in.”

Though ESPN operates from a 123-acre campus in central Connecticut, Silver has headquartered his team in Manhattan. At work, he sets the tone for his staff: he is friendly and energetic, pale and rumpled. The first morning I visit him there, his office–a temporary space, albeit one he’s inhabited for several months–is a mess. There’s nothing on the walls, but books and papers are scattered all over his desk. The place reeks of Red Bull. (Silver prefers the full-sugar version and has a large crate of it in a corner.)

Down the hall from Silver sits Mike Wilson, FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor and the site’s other boss. At 52, Wilson is the place’s grownup, not just in age but in journalistic bona fides. He left his post as managing editor of the Tampa Bay Times in December. In his 18 years at the paper, Wilson edited a Pulitzer Prize–winning story and was a Pulitzer finalist as a writer. His charge at FiveThirtyEight? “I have to make sure everything is written in English,” he says. It’s a playful way to frame what will be one of the site’s most demanding tasks, ensuring that its exacting methods do not turn off the broad audience it covets. (One step in this direction: all the math will be tucked away in footnotes.) Wilson also has to handle the day-to-day operations of the site when Silver is off doing TV or has speaking engagements.

Silver has surrounded himself and Wilson with genuine wonks. Almost everyone on staff knows how to code; when journalists bump into one another in the hallways, the conversation is just as likely to concern a clever new Python script as it is what’s for lunch. Within the past six months, ESPN has poached them from such august outfits as the Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (seriously) to build a new newsroom. Those employers feed into ESPN’s staffing pool about as frequently as they feed directly into the NFL draft. Most of the new hires have no plans to write about sports; many of them are deployed on behalf of the site’s four other sections: politics, science, economics and lifestyle (which is to say, everything).

Andrew Flowers, the site’s 28-year-old quantitative editor, graduated from college with a degree in economics and soon went to work for the Atlanta Fed, hoping it would provide him a pleasant bridge to graduate school. But that world seemed too dusty; his colleagues were incentivized to be as boring as possible in their work. Flowers’ first story pitches for Silver involved corporate reinvestment and the economics of New York City taxicabs.

The site’s 25-year-old senior writer and analyst Harry Enten was hired to cover politics. But his true passion is weather. For fun–“fun”–Enten sends out an email to 400 friends and acquaintances every night containing his weather forecast for the next day. He lists highs and lows and the likelihood of precipitation for New York, Hanover, N.H. (his old college town), and a few other cities where pals of his have wound up, and he peppers it with running quasi-comic commentary. He went to a weeklong weather camp when he was 15. And milk is still his beverage of choice with lunch.

Walter Hickey, FiveThirtyEight’s 23-year-old senior lifestyle writer, recently (and fruitlessly) pitched a comprehensive data-based analysis of the work of Bob Ross, the late host of PBS’s The Joy of Painting. And Silver himself marches toward whimsy with gusto. The site’s major launch project is a nationwide bracket-style competition to anoint America’s best burrito. It will mix user-review data from Yelp with taste-testing from area experts. (Some things are too important to leave up to the new guys–Silver, a lover of Mexican food, has been crunching the data himself.)

The Hunt for Silver

For all the novelty of Silver’s venture, ESPN had already signaled its broadening ambitions with a website called Grantland. It operates out of Los Angeles with a brand all its own. The sports and pop culture publication, which launched in 2011 with a mix of features, blog posts, videos and podcasts, came from the mind of ESPN’s most popular columnist and podcast host, Bill Simmons.

Grantland has gradually swelled to the point where it has a full-time staff of about 24, along with many other regular contributors, and ESPN says the site is profitable. Simmons also supervises 30 for 30, a documentary series he conceived for ESPN in 2009. These projects have made ESPN bosses happy for reasons that have nothing to do with money. “I find, as I travel around, seeing people, speaking at graduate schools, they often mention Grantland and 30 for 30 as ways that make them think about ESPN differently,” says network president Skipper, who earned a master’s degree in 18th century British satire at Columbia and has a soft spot for distinctive voices.

Simmons and his publisher, David Cho, led the recruitment of Silver with Skipper’s taste in mind. In November 2012, Silver and Simmons taped a video podcast in L.A. and hung out for an afternoon. Silver, who by then knew he wanted to start a stand-alone site covering more than just politics and sports, peppered Simmons with questions. Simmons says, “Nate’s a loyal guy, but I didn’t think he was staying at the Times, just reading the tea leaves. I usually have a pretty good intuition with this stuff. I knew they were going to screw this up.” After Simmons dropped Silver off at his hotel, he called his bosses and told them they’d have a puncher’s chance at landing FiveThirtyEight.

The pair reconnected at the 2013 NBA Finals, and by then Silver had made up his mind to leave the Times. (According to Silver, he asked for the chance to hire 20 journalists, and the paper’s bosses countered, after a great delay, by proposing seven new hires. The Times declined to comment on Silver’s departure.)

Venture capitalists were eager to invest in a stand-alone FiveThirtyEight, and Silver had a chance to make a lot of money that way. But Simmons and Cho pulled him back toward ESPN. “The VC stuff looks great on paper, but that’s putting a lot of pressure on you to thrive,” Simmons told Silver. Even Simmons’ dad put the screws to Silver while the pair watched a finals game. By July, Silver had capitulated. “It was the hardest I had ever tried to convince a girl to date me,” Cho says.

Silver says Skipper and his lieutenant Marie Donoghue “were very willing to say yes to things, whereas by contrast at the Times, it was very much that every point was like pulling teeth. Everything was litigated. It was kind of a morass.”

The money is likely good too. Media analyst Ken Doctor estimates that ESPN is providing Silver with an annual editorial budget of $3.25 million to $4 million to start, with an additional down payment for his intellectual property. And ESPN said yes to a special organizational position for FiveThirtyEight. Like Simmons and Grantland, Silver and his site exist outside ESPN’s usual editorial structure, reporting directly to Donoghue and Skipper. Silver’s colleagues in Bristol are eager to help FiveThirtyEight amplify its message, and they’re also wary, knowing that imprecise amplification risks ruining the message and annoying the messengers.

Still, Silver arrives at a media company whose fat margins derive from a very lucrative conflict of interest, broadcasting the very thing its journalists cover. In 2013, ESPN took heavy flak after it pulled its branding from a PBS Frontline documentary about concussions in the NFL. Even with his interest in burrito journalism, Silver’s methods make him look like Edward R. Murrow compared with some of his new colleagues.

Then there is the question of politics. Silver is a left-leaning libertarian who occasionally sasses lunkheaded politicians and the lunkerheaded media that cover them. When ESPN does politics, its anchors interview both presidential candidates at halftime on Monday Night Football, or Barack Obama fills out his NCAA bracket. Donoghue says, “We’re quite clear: we’re nonpartisan. It’s not just the analytics and the conclusions of the stories, but we have to be religious about the way you use terms and characterize people and all that. We’ll obviously keep a close eye on it.”

Silver has the cover of contributing to ABC News, ESPN’s corporate partner at Disney. ABC News president Ben Sherwood says he envisions regular FiveThirtyEight appearances on Good Morning America, Nightline and This Week, all of which will give Silver and his staff a chance to speak more freely about issues that might spook ESPN.

Signs of Life

Anyone will tell you that these are strange days in the journalism business. A combination of digital media’s growth and the pummeling of the financial crisis has squeezed traditional newsrooms. New jobs have gone to web natives willing to rewrite and pontificate quickly and cheaply, and to those gurus bent on populating Google and Facebook with their underworked posts. All the while, the business’s low barriers to entry have created an influx of web traffic built with lower and lower overhead. With greater competition for eyeballs, advertising rates have fallen. A death spiral has begun to take shape. Soon enough the web will have to sate its endless appetite for content exclusively with preteens’ tweets and subliterate text written by the computers themselves. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recent months have offered some signs of life. While advertisers want scale–industry-speak for “lots of readers”–they also want a pleasant space in which to sling their stuff to the right people. “There wasn’t a great value proposition for advertisers in a world of slide shows and cat videos,” says Jim Bankoff, CEO of online publisher Vox Media. Within the past two years, more and more advertisers have knocked on his door, asking for a place to refashion for a digital generation the immersive experience found in print. Henry Blodget, CEO of the news website Business Insider, loves digital media’s growth prospects. “Print newsrooms look at digital media’s business model and say that could never work. But digital-only is a very viable proposition.”

Into the capital void have charged a handful of deep-pocketed investors. Jeff Bezos and John Henry bought the Washington Post and Boston Globe, respectively, and PayPal founder Pierre Omidyar pledged $50 million to create First Look Media, a digital operation devoted to investigative journalism. Ezra Klein, the former Post policy prodigy, received funding from Vox to build his own site. And of course there is Silver. Meanwhile, the Post has begun hiring staffers to replace Klein and the Times has charged David Leonhardt, its onetime Washington bureau chief, with hiring 12 to 15 new staffers for an unnamed analytical project to replace FiveThirtyEight, launching sometime in the spring.

So the sky may not be falling. And reaching toward it are those few new operations, with their high standards for fact and context. In a perfect world, Silver, Klein, Leonhardt and their deputies will reform the media, making coverage of current events simultaneously more accessible and accountable. Their influence will filter not only throughout their own news organizations but everywhere. Along the way they will demonstrate that the Internet’s business model is no foe to quality. Or perhaps they will flounder and make the moneymen, even ones as pecunious as ESPN’s, reconsider investing in premium digital publishing.

“It’ll make for a great Harvard Business School study someday,” Silver says. “Some of the sites will be great, some of them will be terrible, most of them will perform to expectation.” And true to form, in spite of all his confidence in the new FiveThirtyEight, he predicts nothing: “All I’ll say is this. Of all these new ventures, we have the lowest chance of failure.”

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Write to Jack Dickey at jack.dickey@time.com