The New York Times has let statistics wunderkind Nate Silver slip from its grasp, much to the delight of ESPN and ABC News.
Silver, the political number cruncher who predicted the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections with spooky accuracy, has signed a deal to take his FiveThirtyEight franchise to ESPN, where he’ll “serve as editor in chief and build a team of journalists, editors, analysts and contributors in the coming months,” said ESPN president John Skipper.
ESPN is a seemingly perfect fit for Silver, who amassed a cult following in baseball circles prior to the 2008 launch of the FiveThirtyEight blog. Sabermetrics enthusiasts embraced Silver’s homemade PECOTA system (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm), which he developed as a means to accurately forecast the performance and future prospects of Major League Baseball players.
Silver sold PECOTA to Baseball Prospectus in 2003, but he continued to manage the system through the end of the decade.
Political junkies got a taste of Silver’s statistical prowess during the 2008 election, when he correctly predicted the winner in 49 of 50 states. He also nailed all 35 of that year's Senate races.
The Times licensed FiveThirtyEight in 2010. Silver’s prognostications in the Obama-Romney race were even more on the money than they were in the previous election; not only did he correctly pick the winner in each state, but on the morning voters headed to the polls, Silver said Obama would take 313 electoral votes to Romney’s 225. The final tally: Obama 332, Romney 206.
Fellow new hire Keith Olbermann on Friday evening tweeted that Silver essentially got his start as a TV commentator on his MSNBC show, Countdown. (While the rumored pairing of the two eggheads promises something of a baseball nerd nirvana—Olbermann is such an obsessive fan that he once spearheaded a crusade to halt the demonization of "Merkle's Boner," a baserunning error that happened 105 years ago—no decisions about Silver’s TV future have been finalized.)
“We don’t have a programmatic plan for where Nate is going to appear,” Skipper said. “It’s going to be much more opportunistic and it’s going to tie in much more with what he’s doing on FiveThirtyEight that we think will be interesting on television.”
Skipper did say that ESPN has “every intention of Nate appearing on ABC News to talk about the elections.”
Until Monday afternoon, Silver hadn’t commented publicly on the move to ESPN. On Friday, he did update his 569,000 Twitter followers on the state of his DVR queue. (Hint: the program he watched had something to do with meteorology and ichthyology. And chainsaws.)
While Silver adjusts to his new digs, he’ll be concentrating almost exclusively on the site. “Our focus is on the web product first and foremost,” Silver said, adding that writing and statistics will command the bulk of his time. “This is a web‑centered product, and we haven’t discussed very many specifics at all about which programs I’ll be on. … I’ll be on the network some I’m sure, but we really want to get the website rolled out first.”
The loss of Silver will no doubt be a blow to the Times, which generated a great deal of traffic for its website. In the days leading up to the election, FiveThirtyEight accounted for one of five visits to NYTimes.com.
Silver’s contract with the Times was set to expire in August.