By Barry Janoff
July 22, 2013: ESPN probably did not have the weather in mind when they hired leading statistician and best-selling author Nate Silver to bring his insight and award-winning Web site, FiveThirtyEight.com, to the network.
But weather, culture and health are among the topics that likely will be included in the mix.
"Obviously I have a background in sports, and that would be a big focus here, but it's not just going to be a politics site or a sports site," Silver said during a media conference call on Monday to unveil the new multi-year alliance between FiveThirtyEight.com and ESPN. "There's lots of potential in business and economics and weather and health and education and technology and culture . . . There are some meteorologists out there who write in a very compelling way [who] I think might deserve to get a larger platform, so it's a vertical we're going to think about."
Silver and his FiveThirtyEight.com brainchild will move after August from The New York Times (where it has been hosted since 2010) to the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports. Then, later this year, according to ESPN president John Skipper, "[It will] provide a fresh take on the intersection of sports, culture, technology, economics and politics that will be provocative and completely different than anything else in the marketplace today."
Financial terms were not disclosed.
Silver gained national attention in 2008 when he correctly predicted the results of the presidential election in 49 of 50 states, in addition to all 35 U.S. Senate races. In 2012, FiveThirtyEight predicted the election outcome in all 50 states.
Before FiveThirtyEight.com made Silver what ESPN described as "the public face of statistical analysis and political forecasting," he established his credentials as an analyst of baseball statistics. Silver developed a system called PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm), which predicts player performance, career development and seasonal winners and losers.
His most recent book, The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't, was a New York Times bestseller. In addition, he has co-authored several books on baseball statistics, including Mind Game, Baseball Between the Numbers and It Ain't Over 'til It's Over.
He will now use his talents across a multitude of Disney Co.-owned platforms, including ABC News leading up to and during U.S. elections in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016; possibly leading up to ABC's telecasts of The Oscars; likely on Olbermann, the new late-night ESPN show under the direction of Keith Olbermann; and other on-air and online destinations.
Silver said he had other options, possibly staying at The New York Times and, not mentioned, but the elephant in the room, joining the launch in August of the Fox Sports Network. But the power and track records of Disney, ESPN and ABC were the deciding factors. Silver also singled out Grantland.com, under the auspices of Bill Simmons, as being "an independent voice within ESPN" that motivated his decision.
"ESPN and ABC and Disney are really good at figuring out how to build products," he said. "For some other suitors, there were a lot of possibilities. We just had a little bit less confidence there . . . This is a case not where we felt like we had one good option and a number of bad options. We were lucky to be blessed with a lot of very good choices, and this one was kind of a 9.5 out of 10 or a 9.8 out of 10 or a 10 out of 10 when you look at everything."
And about that weather thing.
"You're not saying definitively this will happen for sure; we're not clairvoyant. We're trying to use data that's available to forecast and prepare people for the world."
"One of the things people really misunderstand about what I do is we're making probabilistic forecasts," Silver said. "You're not saying definitively this will happen for sure; we're not clairvoyant. We're trying to use the data that's available to forecast and prepare people for the world, just as they do in weather forecasting, and you're limited by the quality of the data and the complexity of the problem and a whole host of other things."
Bottom line, according to Silver: “This is a dream job for me. I’m excited to expand FiveThirtyEight’s data-driven approach into new areas, while also reuniting with my love of sports. I’m thrilled that we’re going to be able to create jobs for a great team of journalists, writers and analysts. And I think that I’ve found the perfect place to do it. The variety and quality of the assets ESPN and ABC News presented to me was compelling and unparalleled. I can’t wait to get started.”
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