ESPN's FiveThirtyEight: 'We won't go the way of Grantland'

When ESPN turned out the lights on Grantland last fall, one of the big questions was how long it would be until FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s data journalism outfit, followed Grantland out the door. After all, the metrics-focused site was just as much of an odd fit within the sports media empire.

But, two years after its launch, FiveThirtyEight is growing both its traffic and headcount — and says that ESPN has every interest in keeping it around.  Its editorial staff is now at 43, and it’s pushing out 10 stories a day, with plans to double that number this year.

“I don’t think ESPN ever imagined we were going to be huge when it comes to traffic or revenue. This wasn’t designed to do that,” said FiveThirtyEight managing editor David Firestone. “We’re committed to making money, but our real goal is to help ESPN expand its audience and to become a new, long-lasting part of ESPN’s brands.”

Firestone pointed to the FiveThirtyEight’s headcount, which increased by 17 people in the past year. Three of those additions were to the site’s video team, which is helping FiveThirtyEight with short-form clips, such as “The Dean Scream,” a 10-minute exploration of Howard Dean’s campaign-ending yawp in 2004.

Those resources seem to be helping FiveThirtyEight overall. It reached 7.6 million uniques visitors in January, double its reach from the year before, per comScore. Neither of those numbers are going to knock anyone’s socks off: Compared to fast-growth sites, FiveThirtyEight isn’t exactly efficient in generating audience. It’s not that much bigger than Grantland was, at 6 million uniques, when it folded last October.

On that front, FiveThirtyEight seems to realize it can’t live off politics coverage alone, especially after the presidential election. So in addition to politics and sports, it’s also applied its formula to cover The Oscars, Fandango’s Rotten Tomatoes deal and Harper Lee. It’s also building out its science and health coverage (it hired The New York Times Magazine science columnist Maggie Koerth-Baker this week). FiveThirtyEight even plans to venture into eSports coverage later this year.

The idea is to show that the site can do a lot more than cover sports and politics, said Firestone. “We don’t want to spend this year just covering the election. We want readers who come to us to see a much wider array of material,” he said.

The data-driven editorial model isn’t universally praised, however. Allison Schrager, an economist who has written for Quartz and The Economist, said that it’s not clear how much appeal FiveThirtyEight’s  formula will have for the average person in the long run. “I don’t know that most people go to sites to just see data and stats. They’re looking for stories that resonate.”

The bigger nagging question, though, is how long ESPN’s support for FiveThirtyEight will last. While the company said that it was “totally committed” to FiveThirtyEight, ESPN itself is in a bit of a rough patch. In Disney’s last quarter, ESPN’s unit, which also includes the Disney Channels and ABC, posted a 5.6 percent decline in operating income, thanks to subscriber declines and higher programming costs. It’s going to be hard for ESPN to justify keeping something like FiveThirtyEight around if it’s not generating revenue.

“They have to support themselves, because ESPN is not going to be happy about losing money anywhere,” said Seth Alpert, managing director at advisory firm AdMedia Partners, adding that FiveThirtyEight already seems to be further along, monetization-wise, than Grantland was when ESPN pulled the plug.

Bill Simmons, for his part, has complained publicly about ESPN’s inability to monetize Grantland. “We should have made a lot more money than we did, and part of this is my fault,” he said on his podcast back in November. “We had a sponsored studio that wasn’t sponsored! How hard is it to get a sponsor? So it was a lot of moments like that.”

It can’t help that FiveThirtyEight doesn’t have its own salespeople. Instead, its sales are handled by a dedicated sales team within ESPN, which will also handle sales for The Undefeated, a forthcoming site about race and sports. So far, most of what the team is selling for FiveThirtyEight is banner ads and pre-roll video, but the site plans to launch its first sponsored content campaign next month. FiveThirtyEight’s writers won’t be involved in writing the posts.

“Grantland had some issues after [founder Bill] Simmons left. There was some tension there, but that’s not the situation here,” said Firestone, who said that the site has a “great” relationship with ESPN. “I know people looked at Grantland and said something similar would happen to us, but I don’t think there’s any sign of that. Everyone’s committed to this for the long haul.”