I was going to write an article outlining some of the troubles with Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight site. However, Ken Pomeroy, in a recent Reddit AMA, eloquently stated several of the thoughts I’ve held scattered throughout my head. So instead, I’ll gladly deflect to him.
When asked what he thought of the website, Pomeroy responded:
Well, I'm probably more lenient on it than most are right now. I think it's a huge challenge to promise regular data-driven content, because sometimes it takes a while to gather and interpret data. And other times, once you do this, the conclusions can be uninteresting. This is one reason why I don't write regularly for other sites, and I go days without posting on my own site. You can't put interesting data analysis on a time table. So for the most part, I'm going to wait before making sweeping judgments.
That said, despite the limitations facing a data journalism site, FiveThirtyEight has great potential.
Much of the progress in analytics today is propriety with teams hiding their research and analysis in a “black box” of sorts. The analytics industry needs a voice to spearhead the innovation and educate the public.
Certainly, there are hundreds of websites and blogs (and good ones, at that) across various sports. However, I presume these sites are followed by a fairly specific audience – fans of that sport that already have a (fairly) strong understanding/appreciation of analytics and data. I doubt you’ll find a casual soccer fan on FanGraphs or even on a data-focused soccer site such as Soccermetrics.
How do we reach the casual audience? How do we educate the masses?
This is where, I believe, FiveThirtyEight has potential, for two main reasons:
(1) FiveThirtyEight also covers other industries such as weather, politics, and more. By the off chance some of these viewers click on the sports page, Silver and his team will have the opportunity to educate people outside the sports realm. These people might be casual fans or not even fans at all. Furthermore, FiveThirtyEight can reach fans of all sports. It can educate a much larger audience than the smaller, niche websites.
(2) FiveThirtyEight is under the ESPN umbrella. There is no doubting ESPN’s influence in sports media. ESPN can promote FiveThirtyEight’s content to its mass audience. Through Grantland (with writers such as Zach Lowe, Kirk Goldsberry, and others), ESPN has already played a tremendous role in educating the public. Now, ESPN can further extend that impact through FiveThirtyEight.
I don’t know the probability that Silver will succeed. I don’t have an algorithm modeling how to be successful. I do know, however, that the potential is there.
So, too, are the limitations.
FiveThirtyEight may succeed. FiveThirtyEight may fail. Whatever the case may be, read the content as it comes. Analyze it. Critique it if it deserves it. Applaud it if it’s worthy. Share your thoughts with others. Help innovate.
There’s no time table on innovation.