Monday Media: Overvaluing Nate Silver

Nate Silver is moving from The New York Times to ESPN/ABC and everybody­—from Politico and The New Republic to the Times itself—seems to think it’s a big deal. I’m not so sure.

Broadly categorized, Silver is one of those new-fangled “advanced analytics” guys that, frankly, haven’t fared so well at ESPN. Analytics—advanced or otherwise—has almost no presence on ESPN television properties. Its deepest foray into the territory, the deceivingly named Numbers Never Lie, was never very advanced in the first place and pivoted away from numbers towards a debate format after less than a year.

Things are better on, but it’s still nowhere near the leader in analytics, and never will be. Basketball analytics godfather Dean Oliver is criminally underutilized, while its widely touted Total Quarterback Rating is kind of a joke. The simple fact of the matter is that is one of the most visited websites in the world, and thus the vast majority of its content is targeted towards the average fan that isn’t particularly interested in analytics.

So what exactly is Nate Silver going to do at ESPN? He actually contributed to in the past, mostly with a bunch of baseball articles in 2003 and the Soccer Power Index through the 2010 World Cup. He’s very good at that type of work, but I highly doubt ESPN is paying him the big bucks it surely took to lure him away from the Times to write relatively mundane, statistics-heavy pieces that don’t have wide appeal. If they ask him to tone the statistics down—an approach that he would certainly reject—it neutralizes the very reason for hiring him in the first place.

It has been reported that he will be a semi-regular on Keith Olbermann’s new show, but that pairing sounds a lot better in theory than it does to the average common denominator fan who has heard of neither. Silver can also come off as awkward on television, and will require work to polish that presence.

The above-mentioned Politico reports that the Times was prepared to offer Silver his own brand-within-a-brand” site, modeled after things like Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog and Bill Simmons’ Grantland. It seems quite conceivable for ABC/ESPN to put together something similar for Silver—and I do generally agree that this will be one of the more successful blog models in the coming years—but would it actually be successful in this instance?

A site heavily featuring both political and sports content would be a tough sell, with the typical response to the mix being “stick to sports!” Perhaps more saliently, how much different would Silver’s vision—some mix of politics, sports, weather, education, the Oscars, economics and health care—be than the Freakanomics empire which, while popular, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire?

I don’t doubt that his departure is a big blow to the Times, where Silver was a huge driver of traffic during the election season. I also don’t doubt that this is a coup for ABC, who will be able to feature Silver’s work for two months every four years without having to figure out how he can best contribute during the other 46 months. But I’m still struggling to see why this will be the gamechanger for ESPN that everybody else seems to think it will be.

Instead, the arguments for its importance seem to be part self-generating hype from media critics. ESPN has long been a punching bag because of its “embrace debate” ethos and continued employment of folks like Skip Bayless and Rick Reilly, and Nate Silver is just the sort of intellectual that critics want ESPN to hire. To some, the hire can be read as an acknowledgement that they were right all along, and that ESPN is finally listening to them and pursuing a new, more intelligent, direction.

That may indeed be the case, but if so it still doesn’t mean that Nate Silver was the right hire.

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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2 Responses to Monday Media: Overvaluing Nate Silver

  1. kenji says:

    I am really interested in how “politics” will play out here. Silver’s book was certainly not political, in that it did not advocate any political position. He did, however, go fairly in depth on the prediction of weather and climate change. I am curious how ESPN’s general audience, which, unfortunately, as it is comprised of the general American populace, still harbors doubts as to the veracity of climate change predictions.

    Will Silver be forced to tone it down? Will he use it as a place to bring it up more? I am curious to see.

    • Kevin Draper says:

      I’m very curious as well. Frankly, I am hard-pressed to think of successful sports/politics combinations. You have things like The Nation, a leftist magazine with a leftist approach to sports, but there hasn’t been anything that has attempted to be fairly mainstream, which an ESPN/ABC property surely will be.

      For the nuts and bolts, I think the best model to look at is assuredly Grantland, with Silver playing the Bill Simmons role. He’ll bring on 3 or 4 editors plus ~12ish writers. For the content, the best model to look at is probably Freakanomics—which was also licensed by the New York Times for a few years—which now encompasses a regular NPR podcast, daily trivia-ish items, guest posts, Dubner/Levett content with support from others etc.

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