Can Nate Silver save ESPN from itself?
Last March, ESPN hit what some observers considered a new low for the 34-year old network. Commentator Skip Bayless, a real blowhard's blowhard, got in an on-air shouting match with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (actually, Bayless was the only one shouting). The argument was simple: What's more important, Sherman's 8 interceptions or the fact that Skip Bayless doesn't appreciate Sherman's trash talk? The altercation had reached such depths of dumbness that fellow ESPN commentator Bill Simmons suggested to his followers that they turn off the TV, calling the incident "embarrassing to everyone involved." (ESPN suspended Simmons from Twitter for three days, saying he violated the network's social media guidelines).
It was the Classical's Bryan Joiner who wrote the definitive takedown of Bayless, Sherman, and the network that allowed this train-wreck to enter the retinas of America. On Bayless, Joiner writes that he "is perfect in sports media because he’s fine with explaining the unexplainable, without pausing to catch his breath; he uses flubby math to solve unsolvable problems daily." And on ESPN, he writes, "Sports fans don’t love ESPN because it’s ESPN; they love it because sports is their unsolvable problem, and ESPN is ostensibly the lab where they’re working on it. The issue being that ESPN isn’t full of sports scientists; it’s more of a cult."
Now here comes Nate Silver, a bonafide "sports scientist" if there ever was one, riding in on his "great steed Sabermetric," to pull some signal from the noise of both crowded stadiums and (we can only hope) ESPN's often obnoxious programming. Meanwhile, Silver's departure will surely be felt at the New York Times. His colleague Brian Stelter, who first broke the news, admits as much: "Mr. Silver’s three-year contract with The Times is set to expire in late August and his departure will most likely be interpreted as a blow to the company, which has promoted Mr. Silver and his brand of poll-based projections." More to the point, the Times' executive editor Jill Abramson told the New Republic last November that Silver's blog "is drawing huge traffic.”
But can Nate Silver bring much-needed intelligence to a network that's become dominated by whoever happens to be shouting the loudest and whoever is most smugly confident in the unfallibility of his opinions? Or are ESPN viewers already inured to the network's tendency to pose unanswerable questions ("Is LeBron better than Jordan? Lol.") and then answer them anyway? Will they reject Silver as the doofy numbers nerd, the Colmes to Skip Bayless' Hannity? And isn't there a risk that by reducing everything to numbers that the game loses some of the irrational magic that drives all sports fandom?
Time will tell, but I think Silver will fit in well. First of all, sports aren't like elections, and so there's no fear that Silver the wizard will ruin the game by accurately predicting the victor of every match (For example, his Super Bowl picks were way off). But most importantly, the questions he asks are often no less absurd than the ones posed by ESPN. The difference is the way Nate SIlver comes up with the answer, which is always a lot more interesting. Just last month, SIlver published his own article called "LeBron's Odds of Catching Jordan." It's a silly question, but a fun one that I'm sure has driven innumerable bar discussions, both boneheaded and thoughtful. And even if the subject matter is as silly as "How would Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant play alongside each other?" I'd rather watch a thoughtful guy like Silver talk about it than a boneheaded guy like Bayless.
[Photo by Randy Stewart]