Nate Silver in 2015 on NY1. “Nate Silver in Conversation with NY1’s Pat Kiernan” on the YP Stage on Day 1 of Internet Week New York May 18, 2015. INSIDER IMAGES/Gary He

The era of Nate Silver running FiveThirtyEight at ESPN/ABC News/Disney looks to be coming to a close amidst wider Disney layoffs. Silver joined Disney from The New York Times in 2013, working primarily at ESPN at that point but with ABC News appearances as well. He then relaunched FiveThirtyEight, the data-driven subbrand he had built at The New York Times, at its own domain in 2014, with it falling under ESPN then (and fitting in their lineup of personality-driven sites, along with the 2011-launched Grantland and, soon, the 2016-launched The Undefeated, now Andscape).

In 2018, oversight of FiveThirtyEight passed to ABC News, part of broader ESPN moves away from politics following John Skipper’s late-2017 exit from that company. That came after lots of discussion of Disney selling off the site to someone outside, with The Athletic mentioned as one potential buyer, but they instead opted to just transfer it within the company. Since the ABC News transfer, FiveThirtyEight has continued covering sports, politics, and other topics (science, food, and more). However, Silver’s own employment with Disney looks to be coming to an end. And FiveThirtyEight’s future there also seems in question given Silver (seen above in a 2015 interview with NY1) tweeting about the company-wide layoffs “substantially impacting” the site. Here are his tweets on that Tuesday:

Former FiveThirtyEight writer Clare Malone, now at The New Yorker, tweeted that FiveThirtyEight’s models licensed to Disney end with Silver’s contract, and that the NYT has already picked up some of the laid-off FiveThirtyEight writers. That adds to the case the site may undergo radical change after Silver’s exit:

However, Alex Weprin of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that ABC News plans to keep the FiveThirtyEight brand, but with major changes:

ABC News is expected to keep the FiveThirtyEight brand name, with plans to streamline the site and make it more efficient.

“ABC News remains dedicated to data journalism with a core focus on politics, the economy and enterprise reporting — this streamlined structure will allow us to be more closely aligned with our priorities for the 2024 election and beyond,” an ABC News spokesperson said in a statement. “We are grateful for the invaluable contributions of the team members who will be departing the organization and know they will continue to make an important impact on the future of journalism.”

There are certainly going to be lots of departures, though. Some prominent FiveThirtyEight writers and editors, including aforementioned editor Chadwick Matlin, long-time sportswriter Neil Paine (previously at Sports Reference), long-time science writer Maggie Koerth, business operations manager Vanessa Diaz, senior editor Meena Ganesan, editor Curtis Yee, race and politics reporter Alex Samuels, and copy editor Andrew Mangan, have already confirmed they’ve been let go:

It’s been a run of ups and downs for Silver and FiveThirtyEight at Disney. His star was riding quite high when he joined Disney in 2013 as a contributor to Olbermann (remember that show?) and ABC News and as head of the soon-to-be-relaunched FiveThirtyEight site. But FiveThirtyEight has seemed like a less logical fit for ESPN in recent years.

ESPN has had less of an emphasis on print/online writing since that 2013 move to bring Silver in and the 2014 relaunch of FiveThirtyEight. The shift away from that has included the shuttering of Grantland in 2015 and the end of ESPN The Magazine in 2019. And while their political coverage at FiveThirtyEight drew strong traffic at times, especially around the 2016 U.S. presidential election, ESPN has moved away from a lot of even-vaguely-political content or personalities under Skipper’s replacement Jimmy Pitaro. That was part of the 2018 effort to shop FiveThirtyEight, which ended with the eventual transfer of it to ABC News. And FiveThirtyEight has been impacted by some past rounds of Disney layoffs as well.

And with the continued focus on Silver there, FiveThirtyEight feels like the last of Disney’s personality-driven sites, at least in sports. TrueHoop (based around Henry Abbott, and older and slightly different from the others) ended its ESPN run with Abbott’s 2017 layoff (Abbott later relaunched it on Substack in 2019), while Grantland (initially based around Bill Simmons) only lasted six months after ESPN’s non-renewal of Simmons’ contract (which sounds similar to what’s happening with Silver) in May 2015. The Undefeated was initially intended as a personality-driven “Black Grantland” site based around Jason Whitlock, but that didn’t work, and its eventual launch with Kevin Merida at the helm was far more centered on Merida’s editing experience than some central personality-based vision. (That worked, and Merida got more ESPN responsibility, but he left in 2021 for an executive editor role at The Los Angeles Times, and the 2022 rebranding of The Undefeated to Andscape further illustrated it wasn’t centered on any one person.) And while FiveThirtyEight may continue in some “streamlined” model for ABC News after Silver’s exit, it certainly won’t be personality-driven after that.

It should be noted that FiveThirtyEight’s run, at the NYT and then Disney, has not been all positive. The site and its writers have certainly made some positive data-based contributions in both sports and politics, including the 2019 development of NBA metric RAPTOR and several reasonable election prediction pieces. But their work has come under fire at other times, especially when it’s based on Google search data for leagues and when it doesn’t factor in real-world distances or populations. That’s how you get a proposed “Sudbury/Thunder Bay” NHL expansion franchise, and other things of that nature. And Silver himself has been wrong on the last two presidential elections, and has personally transformed into quite the take artist. Still, it’s interesting to see him leaving Disney. And it will be interesting to see where he lands, and how a Silver-less “streamlined” FiveThirtyEight does for ABC.

[The Hollywood Reporter; photo from Wikipedia]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.