When ESPN suspended the publication of Grantland last October, many wondered if their other current “affinity site” (thanks to The Undefeated remaining unlaunched), Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, might be next. Silver told AdWeek in January he wasn’t worried about the site’s future, though, and managing editor David Firestone (a 21-year New York Times vet who joined the site last March) told Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton this week that FiveThirtyEight “won’t go the way of Grantland“:
“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.” …
“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.”
Saying that is one thing (it would be more unusual if a site’s editor said, “No, they’re totally shutting us down”), but there seems to be some data and some approaches that back this up. FiveThirtyEight was behind Grantland (2 million monthly uniques to 4.8 million) in August 2014, but that wasn’t long after its launch. It was closer in May 2015 (7.2 million for Grantland, 5.2 million for FiveThirtyEight), and Bilton writes that FiveThirtyEight pulled in 7.6 million unique visitors in January, above the 6 million monthly uniques Grantland had when it was closed. Sure, that’s not a huge number in the grand scheme of things (consider that Deadspin had 25 million uniques in that August 2014 comparison), but it’s not an insignificant one, and it does show a good trend for FiveThirtyEight. Perhaps even more indicative of ESPN’s belief in the site is that they hired 17 people last year and now have 43 editorial staff (according to Digiday; it’s interesting that Silver told AdWeek in January they had “about 25“), and that they’re making further pushes into areas like video. It seems unlikely that you’re hiring that many if you don’t believe in the site’s future, but ESPN has been known for changing directions quickly.
What’s possibly even a better sign for FiveThirtyEight is that they’re exploring some different approaches to making money with creative sponsorships, something that’s been cited (both by external critics and by Simmons) as one of the reasons Grantland didn’t last. Digiday notes that they’ll launch sponsored posts next month (FiveThirtyEight’s writers won’t be involved). There are still probably more sponsorship opportunities out there, but at least ESPN’s proving somewhat willing to pursue them with FiveThirtyEight, and Firestone’s openly-stated “We’re committed to making money” shows that this site intends to drive revenue for ESPN, not be a loss-leader. It’s much harder to cut something that’s profitable than something that’s running a deficit. (Of course, there were ways Grantland could have made ESPN money, but many of them weren’t really explored.) Also, consider that Silver told AdWeek in January ESPN established his site as a long-term play:
I think digital journalism is a challenging business, period. But we have a lot of things going for us. One is that we have a really nice growth trajectory as far as our graphic goes. It’s grown up a lot and we’ve shown that there is some scale. I also think the quality of what we’re doing is pretty good. There are definitely several stories per week now on the site that I am very proud of. Because ESPN is used to thinking about the long term, they told us very explicitly to “take a year and a half to kind of get your feet underneath you and focus on quality.” We were really sad to see Grantland go. They were kind of our colleagues, but we think we’re on a pretty good trajectory ourselves.
We’ll see just how good that trajectory proves to be and if Silver and Firestone’s optimism is justified, but there are some reasons to believe FiveThirtyEight may be around for some time to come.