By the time mid-term election season really heats up, Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight will in all likelihood have a different platform than ESPN. The Big Lead has learned that ESPN is exploring its options to sell or otherwise divest from the brand.
An ESPN spokesperson provided the following statement to The Big Lead: “FiveThirtyEight is a tremendous asset to ESPN, and together we’ve created exceptional content. We are exploring, with Nate, a variety of options for the future, and any discussion of exactly what that might look like would be premature.”
According to a person with knowledge of the news, there is “significant interest” in FiveThirtyEight. Among the several potential options are a sale to The Atlantic or another outlet, or moving the platform elsewhere in the Disney umbrella, most likely integrating it with ABC News. Unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter, the person requested anonymity.
ESPN is of course always going to be interested in covering sports from a data analytics perspective. However, in the event that FiveThirtyEight is acquired by an outlet that is focused on politics and not sports, it is unclear what will happen to the individual writers on the site’s ledger that focus on sports. After Grantland was shuttered in 2015, a vast majority of the writers were done with the company when their contracts expired. Nevertheless, a few contributors — Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell, Jalen Rose, and Dave Jacoby — remained and were elevated.
ESPN acquired Silver’s FiveThirtyEight brand in 2013, after amongst other things Silver nailed the 2012 election for the New York Times. ESPN was fortifying against competition from then-upstart FS1 and former president John Skipper was on a spending spree for high-profile talent. This was around the time that Grantland was cresting. Silver joined ESPN the same week the network re-hired Keith Olbermann, and about a month before they re-hired Jason Whitlock to try to launch The Undefeated.
As the political environment has become more polarized, ESPN’s outward message has been that they wish to re-focus on sports, and avoid politics unless they overtly intersect with sports. This is, of course, a thin tight-wire to walk, and cannot be accomplished overnight.
While our source insists that the wheels were in motion to move on from FiveThirtyEight before John Skipper’s abrupt exit, it will nevertheless be worth monitoring whether and the extent to which some of the other platforms and/or programs that he was a major champion of during his tenure leading ESPN endure.