Nate Silver Heads to ESPN

Nate Silver will be moving from the New York Times to ESPN this fall.  Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog gained national notoriety for his accurate predictions in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races, will reportedly be given a significant digital platform for statistical sports analysis as well as airtime on a number of ESPN programs.  FiveThirtyEight, whose three year lease agreement with the Times expires this August, will revert to its pre-NYT independence.

The move seems like a coup for ESPN.  Sabermetric analysis has become increasingly prevalent in sports coverage, and it makes sense that the network would seek to give statistical assessment a more prominent place in its program lineup.   There are few people better to lead this charge than Silver.  I would imagine he’ll fill a role similar to recently-departed NBA columnist and Player Efficiency Rating mastermind John Hollinger, albeit on a greater scale across all four major sports.

The move indicates that Silver will expand his coverage beyond politics and will more frequently cover a wider range of topics, as was the case with his recent book, The Signal and the NoisePolitico (via NYM) also reports that Silver will work for ABC News during prominent political cycles and will also cover entertainment events such as the Oscars.  (I share Matt’s skepticism of Politico and I’ll emphasize that these are only rumors at the moment.)

I was surprised to learn that Silver was leaving the Times after achieving such notoriety with his political predictions, but after reading about the potential plans he has in store, his rationale makes sense.  It will be disappointing if he stops writing about politics as frequently as he is now, but it will be fascinating to see his methods applied to a greater scope of current events.  I’m also hoping this represents a small step in the direction of better discussing cultural issues that surround sports in a broader context, which I argued for in my previous post on ESPN.  Silver could show how statistical sports analysis can be applied to other, broader contexts (health care, business, etc.) and thereby introduce fans to easily understandable ways in which a “sports framework” can be of even greater consequence.

If Silver can successfully cover the politics-sports-entertainment trifecta, he’ll become a crossover superstar that contemporary culture rarely sees.  I wonder if he could subsequently launch a “pop-statistics” movement in which swathes of people would gain new appreciation for statistical methods and sabermetric applications for their daily lives.  The potential is enormous and I’m looking forward to seeing if he succeeds.

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Sports and Social Commentary

In his first piece as the new Ombudsman for ESPN, Robert Lypsyte critiqued the network’s coverage of NBA player Jason Collins’ recent decision to come out of the closet.  In particular, Lypsyte analyzes a controversial SportsCenter debate about Collins between LZ Granderson and Chris Broussard, in which Broussard argued that homosexuality (among other sins) constituted “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”

Lypsyte provides a thorough and much-needed breakdown of the network’s missteps in addressing this issue.  His extensive follow-up with Broussard, Granderson, and other network executives is admirable and does a good job of contextualizing the decisions that led to Granderson and Broussard’s debate.  But I would have liked to see Lypsyte provide a fuller appraisal of three components of the story:

1) ESPN’s reticence to publish news about Collins’ announcement

2) Broussard’s questionable comments on homosexuality

3) What ESPN can do to better integrate “the journalistic issues that affect our understanding and appreciation” of sports into its daily broadcasts to better satiate “…people [who] want information, they want to understand their world, including the world of their games.”

ESPN’s coverage of Collins’ coming out was surprisingly subdued, especially given that this was the first active male player in the four major sports to make such a revelation.   The network’s website failed to promote the story as a headlining issue and instead slotted it underneath a piece about Tim Tebow.  Although ESPN certainly had the right to assign a lower hierarchy of coverage to Collins’ announcement, the network’s credibility was called into question, especially since most major non-sports news organizations were reporting the story as a major headline.  While Lypsyte does acknowledge ESPN’s reporting delay, he only seems to give the network a slight slap on the wrist instead of assessing the editorial decisions that led to the lack of coverage.

Lypsyte gives Broussard and Granderson’s commentary on homosexuality a much more thorough breakdown.  While Broussard is entitled to his opinion, it would have been appropriate for Lypsyte to acknowledge that this is not what all Christians think about homosexuality.  The Ombudsman column exists to provide objective criticism of the network’s policies and decisions, and I would argue that correcting any misconceptions imbued in a flawed piece falls under the Ombudsman’s purview.  A simple line about how Broussard does not represent a categorical spectrum of Christian belief on homosexuality would have assuaged the loaded nature of the segment.

Finally, Lypsyte’s column raises an excellent question that warrants further discussion: how far should sports news coverage go in discussing prominent social, political, and cultural questions?  Lypsyte mentions that readers who wrote in about the Broussard story were strongly divided on this issue, with some explicitly saying that coverage of Collins’ coming out was not appropriate for younger viewers who are likely to watch ESPN’s programs.  Granderson told Lypsyte that his conversation with Broussard “went too far – not too far for where it needs to go but too far for that news story. It was not necessarily a conversation for ESPN, which is not necessarily the place to examine theological differences.”

Both Granderson and Lypsyte’s readers raise fair points.  ESPN is in the business of providing coverage of sports events, and while cases like Collins’ announcement do constitute significant events, the ramifications of these events are not necessarily suited for network discussion (especially on-air discussion in ESPN’s current slate of programming).  But it would be most welcome to see ESPN set up an affiliate subspace devoted to covering how sports can be an effective conduit of discussion about topics that might be uninteresting for people in a non-athletic context.  One of the best articles I’ve read about the state of South African economic division was an ESPN piece that discussed how construction of the soccer stadium in preparation for the 2010 World Cup was exacerbating Cape Town’s wealth disparity.  ESPN consistently produces stories with this kind of pan-athletic scope, but they’re often ineffectively integrated within normal sports coverage, and current analysis programs like “Outside the Lines” often include normal coverage that’s just more in-depth.  (Current story on the OtL main page: “As he settles into 50, Michael Jordan finds himself wondering if there are any more asses left for him to kick.”)  There is a yet-untapped space for ESPN to aggregate its longer magazine articles on politics, its “30 for 30” film series, its OtL social reports, and more in conjunction with new articles and interviews that deal with the impact of sports beyond the field.

Although ESPN is often criticized by many fans and other organizations such as Deadspin for being a grandstanding corporate behemoth, it does have the scope and influence to affect how millions of fans view and interpret their games.  It would be wonderful to see the network take advantage of this opportunity and create a space dedicated to things that matter beyond the games themselves.