Nate Silver, Data and Storytelling

ESPN's new hire could transform sports television.

By Douglas Alden Warshaw

121107013229-nate-silver-fivethirtyeight-monsterFORTUNE—We are steadily moving from a qualitative to a quantitative world, not just in the sciences but also in politics, sports, mass entertainment and many other creative endeavors.

The old guard—mostly over 45 (but not everybody over 45!)—is somewhere between despondent and pissed-off over this state of affairs. Many of these people feel that numbers lack nuance, that measurements lack emotions, that data lacks drama, and most of all that numerical insight lacks human understanding. And they've got good reason to feel this way, because it's in their DNA.

Human beings have  evolved as storytellers, readers and listeners.  Dating back to at least 2000 BC and the writing of the Gilgamesh—the epic poem from Mesopotamia, regarded as the first surviving piece of literature—we have explained our lives and the world around us in story.  Narrative is not just how we discuss  the world, it's how we interpret it, how we bundle our neurological impulses and responses to make sense of our immediate environment, which has far too many data points for us to ever live solely by the numbers.

But narrative has been digitally  disrupted for most of us, since the mid-aughts. Now, instead of experiencing a packaged story we're able to simply choose the bits  and pieces we want to read, listen to, or watch.

In sports, watching highlights has trumped the experience of the game, so much so that one NFL team is considering showing the RedZone channel on their stadium scoreboard during games. In music, songs have trumped albums. Images captured as pictures and video now trump the experience of life—go to any sporting event or rock concert and it's clear that most of us are far more interested in capturing the moment than truly experiencing it. It's no longer about being at the event, as much as it's about showing the world that you were at the event. Many of us now feel we can experience the world through an HD screen. Indeed, as of this summer we can merge ourselves with the screen by putting on a pair of internet enabled glasses that provide us with a steady stream of augmented reality and digitally annotates our life.

All of which means that if you are under 25 there's a good chance you are an active participant of the first generation since the Gilgamesh not compelled to put life into a narrative, if for no other reason than you're too distracted.

But the bits of life are not the guts of life.

In order to communicate causality, theory, insight, comedy or drama in depth—in order to truly move audiences, whether they be one person or millions—data still needs narrative, because people are hardwired to be moved by emotion.

For those of us who care about storytelling in the digital age, the question has become how do we get the best of both? How do we create new forms of storytelling that incorporate the quantitative into the qualitative?

Television, frankly, has been awful at this.  And sports television in particular has been surprisingly awful at creatively integrating statistics into its coverage. For the most part it has simply littered the screen with scores and tickers—it's done a great job of bringing us multiple streams of real-time information, but it's done a lousy job of using data to bring any new dimension to what we're watching.

Nate Silver's arrival at ESPN just might change that.

ESPN, which doth bestride the sports world like a colossus, isn't just the biggest sports network in North America, it's also one of the continent's largest news and information companies. When it comes to news and data-gathering ESPN has scale—massive scale—and that ability to capture and parse big data is ESPN's next competitive advantage.

At ESPN Nate Silver is potentially an intellectual leader whose presence could be transformative to sports television. At the New York Times, Silver was a prognosticator and a brand, a conjuror who with his blog was scarily accurate in predicting the outcomes of elections. That was the sizzle. But the actual steak is that Silver is able to tell stories we can all dine out on using data. That's what's so exciting.

Just as Steven D. Levitt's Freakonomics changed the way the lay person—or, at least, the people who write for the layperson—frames social issues by revealing how economic incentives affect human behavior on both micro and macro levels, Nate Silver through parsed datasets and analyzed deltas to reveal human behavior in the aggregate and deliver fascinating takes on outcomes in the political world. Silver's ability to use numbers as a thread and weave data throughout a coherent narrative, when coupled with ESPN's resources, gives him the opportunity to transform how sports stories are told on the TV.

As we move from a qualitative to a quantitative world, as sabermetrics has migrated into all the major sports—and Moneyball has become Moneyballs—there are two big questions for sports journalists and sports fans:

  • What do the available numbers tell us about patterns of performance? That is, how, when, where and why do sports executives, managers, coaches, players and agents make their decisions about personnel, contracts, pre-game and in-game strategy, and a host of other coaching and management decisions?


  • How can the data be visually represented and animated to actually illustrate patterns of cause and effect with regard to the decisions and performances of the players and teams that we love and hate, to bring a new dimension to sports coverage?

Nate Silver isn't the Billy Beane of sports journalism—that honor goes to Bill James, the man who gave birth to sabermetrics—but Silver could be something special if ESPN supports him with production, vision and creativity. To get the most out of their substantial investment in Silver, ESPN needs to avoid thinking of him as just some new talking head who requires infographics instead of highlights.  Instead, ESPN needs to start thinking up new production values, elements and animations to support Silver's style of storytelling.

The final piece of the Silver puzzle will involve his on-air personality. ESPN needs to think hard about the personal dynamics that are the emotional core of why viewers watch particular shows.

Case in point: ESPN's NBA studio show "NBA Countdown," a show that would stand out for its lack of creativity, vision and personality even if it wasn't inevitably compared to TNT's "Inside the NBA" starring Charles Barkley. This past season watching "NBA Countdown" featuring Magic Johnson, Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons (ESPN's most innovative personality—in text) was like watching four guys who had just met at a convention and found themselves stuck together in an elevator. They were all there for the same reason, but they weren't going anywhere.

Enter Silver. (Please.)

TV shows at their core are about relationships—both friendship and friction—that's what bonds viewers to them, as the Today Show, Good Morning America, Charles Barkley & Co. and ESPN's own "Pardon The Interruption" make abundantly clear. ESPN now has a chance to recreate its NBA coverage with creative information, combined with "creative tension" between "The Quants" (Silver and Simmons) and "The Classics" (Wilbon and Magic). (Or as some might eventually call them, the Quants versus the Quaints.) But that will only work if ESPN puts serious production values—and resources—behind both Silver's and Simmons' insights.

The network has shown that it can be innovative when it comes to coaches X's and O's, but can they be innovative when it comes to zeros and ones?

That's really what will determine if ESPN can turn Silver into gold.


Douglas Alden Warshaw is a contributing writer for Fortune covering media and entertainment. He's been a producer at ABC News, ABC Sports, ESPN and NBC Sports & Olympics.


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