ESPN May Well Be the Smartest Media Brand on the Internet

by Dan Lyons


July 23, 2013 at 4:00 PM

smart-movesYesterday I wrote about INBOUND keynote speaker Nate Silver’s decision to move his FiveThirtyEight blog from The New York Times to ESPN/ABC, and said the move reflected the rise of the “free agent journalist.” The gist of that story was that Silver has built his own free-floating plug-and-play media brand which he can attach to any media company.

There’s a second part to the story, which is about the media company to which Silver has decided to attach his brand: ESPN.

To me, Silver’s move is just further confirmation of something that a lot of people in media have long believed, which is that ESPN is the one legacy media brand that really “got” the internet before any of the others did, and still “gets it” today more than other media companies.

Legacy Media 

That includes The New York Times, which is far and away the best newspaper in the United States and one of the best in the world. The Times has been in business since 1851, and it’s more than a newspaper, even more than a media company -- it’s a cultural institution.

The Times has committed huge resources and worked really hard to adapt to the internet, and has produced some amazing projects, like the ”Snow Fall” multimedia presentation about an avalanche.

And yet, the Times still doesn’t get the internet. At least, not the way ESPN does.

A very telling article is this one published by Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the Times, who says that a lot of the big-name journalists at the Times disliked Silver and his work, and that “I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture.”

The old-timers don’t like Silver because they’re clinging to their traditional way of doing things: punditry and prognostication, smoke-filled back rooms and gut instinct. Silver’s approach is all about data. As I wrote last fall after Silver correctly called the presidential election even as all of the big pundits got it wrong, “The age of voodoo is over.”

What I wrote then: “One by one, computers and the people who know how to use them are knocking off these crazy notions about gut instinct and intuition that humans like to cling to. For far too long we’ve applied this kind of fuzzy thinking to everything, from silly stuff like sports to important stuff like medicine.”

But that fuzzy thinking is what the Times -- or at least a significant and influential faction of the Times newsroom -- still wants to celebrate.

And that, I think, is why Silver left. It wasn’t because ESPN offered him a lot more money (though I’m sure they did) but because ESPN showed him that it possessed both the resources and the know-how required to take an internet franchise like the FiveThirtyEight blog and build it into something bigger. This will include TV appearances, and the chance to expand FiveThirtyEight into domains beyond politics, which will includes sports, education, even weather.

How ESPN Got the Internet

The funny thing is that ESPN isn’t a “digital native” either. It’s a “legacy” media company, just like the Times. But somehow ESPN has adapted to the internet better than most other media companies.

For one thing, ESPN got in early, launching its first website in 1995. But I suspect ESPN also gave its internet operation greater autonomy than other media companies did theirs.

The big mistake newspapers and magazines made was trying to do the internet on the cheap, by creating online publications that contained the same stuff that was being published in the print paper. Sure, you might hire a few people to run the online edition, but it wasn’t seen as being the equal of the parent operation, whether that was print or TV.

ESPN gave its internet operation freedom to become a “digital native,” to experiment and operate by the new rules of the digital world -- and to become as big and important in its own right as the TV version of ESPN. Most media companies did the opposite. They kept their internet operations under the wing of the parent company and treated their websites as a poor cousin of the “flagship” operation.

Perhaps because of its roots in TV, ESPN also understood that talent is important. The network recruited Bill Simmons, a relatively unknown but massively talented sports blogger, and turned him into a rock star. Nate Silver is already a rock star, but I’ll bet that in three years his operation will be twice as big as it is today. I’m not sure if this is what he’ll be talking about at HubSpot’s INBOUND conference, but it’s less than a month away and I’m sure a lot of people are going to be hanging on his every word. I know I’ll be one of them.

In honor of Nate Silver's upcoming move to ESPN, we're happy to share an extra $400 off INBOUND tickets with Nate fans. Just enter promo code STATSFAN when registering.

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