What Were the Odds?

07.20.13

What Were the Odds That Nate Silver Would Leave The New York Times for ESPN? Only Nate Knows.

Statistics whiz Nate Silver brought huge traffic to the Gray Lady, and now ESPN stands to win big. Brandy Zadrozny on what’s next for the oddsmaker.

When news broke Friday that superhero statistician Nate Silver was leaving The New York Times for sports network ESPN, the media circus quickly piled on.

“What were the odds?” tweeted Politico’s Blake Hounshell.

“With Nate Silver at ESPN, there'll be no reason to watch games -- we'll know the results beforehand with 98% certainty,” tweeted Huffington Post’s Robert Elisberg.

Silver is best known for accurately predicting the outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Among the chattering class, Obama's victory was arguably as big a deal for Silver as for Democrats. During the last election cycle, his FiveThirtyEight blog reportedly accounted for 20 percent of the traffic coming to the Times. His contract was up next month, and he was in the middle of negotiations, according to reports.

No stranger to numbers, Silver might have seen a monster payday in his future, and media giants like ESPN and ABC have deeper pockets than print media. Not that it’s just money: Silver was a sports-numbers geek first—he started as baseball statistics analyst before dabbling in political prognosticating, a hobby that quickly gained him acclaim for being right more than anyone else.

Business Insider called Silver’s decision “genius,” noting that the move means a bigger audience. And some sports fans are thrilled. Sports blog SB Nation called Silver “one of the most sought-after minds in analytics.”

“I know most folks know Silver for 538 and his election projections, but he’s a pretty major figure in baseball analysis and its cool that he’s going to be getting back to that,” wrote NBC’s Craig Calcaterra.

Though The New York Times, in its story announcing Silver’s move, said he’ll "most likely be a regular contributor" to Keith Olbermann's new ESPN2 show, the network won’t confirm anything yet.

Silver might have seen a monster payday in his future, one that the Times might not have been able to produce.

“We haven’t seen anything from our end,” despite reports on Twitter, ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle told The Daily Beast.

One thing that is clear, however, is that Silver’s move marks a potentially big loss for the Times. “He was doing something that is fairly rare in journalism: he was doing the math. I say that not entirely jokingly. Journalists are notoriously bad at this,” says Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University. “For people who care about this sort of thing, it was pretty delicious to watch someone doing the math and to see pundit after pundit make fools of themselves with their ‘intuition.’”

He added, “In the 21st-century mode of journalism, online, moving away from the manufacturing model, the kinds of things that he’s been doing are far more rare than punditry. There are a lot of pundits. If the entire op-ed staff of The New York Times (except for maybe Krugman) left tomorrow, I would guess they could replace them with very few ripples of readership.”

As to why Silver left, Gillmor could only guess, but he offered the love of baseball and perhaps the simplest explanation: cash. “ABC and ESPN have a lot more money. They are hugely profitable enterprises. So I would be surprised if he’s not going to make a lot more than he’s making. But again, you’d have to ask him.”

Silver didn’t return a request for comment. He did, however, tweet just two hours after news of his departure broke, that he was on to some really important business: “Finally getting around to watching Sharknado.”