The Athletic Emerges as Another Potential Landing Spot for ESPN's FiveThirtyEight


Last month, The Big Lead reported that ESPN was exploring the saleof Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight platform, and that potential landing spots included The Atlantic or being spun into ABC News. We have now learned of a third potential landing spot: The Athletic.

The source of this information was unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity; spokespeople for both The Athletic and ESPN declined to comment.

It’s been impossible to ignore that The Athletic has been on a talent buying spree. Since we first reported last July that they were bringing on Tim Kawakami to launch a site in the Bay Area and Stewart Mandel and Seth Davis to lead national college football and basketball verticals, they’ve hired dozens of sportswriters including big names like Ken Rosenthal, Peter Gammons, and Jayson Stark.

An acquisition of FiveThirtyEight would be a big gamble for both sides. From FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver’s perspective, The Atlantic is a legacy publication that specializes in politics, and Silver’s election forecasting, in particular, would fit right in. So would much of the site’s other political coverage, such as its recent series on gerrymandering.

A majority stake in the Atlantic was purchased by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow, in July. The outlet announced last week they are going on a hiring spree. ABC News is another legacy outlet that you could bet your life will exist in 3-5 years.

Everybody in this industry should be rooting for The Athletic to succeed because competition in the marketplace benefits everybody, and the newcomer is clearly willing to provide high-quality jobs for as long as it exists. Nevertheless, whether they can parlay all of these writers into an outlet that is profitable and generates sufficient returns for venture capital investors is still a very open question in industry circles.

According to Crunchbase, The Athletic has raised a total of $7.7 million. From the outside, one would presume they would need to raise more money in order to consummate a purchase of FiveThirtyEight and pay the salaries of the staffers who remain post-acquisition.

In October, after The Athletic co-founder Alex Mather told Kevin Draper of the New York Times that the site’s plan was to bleed out local newspaper sports sections and suck them dry of their talent, Mather acknowledged in a back-and-forth with SI’s Michael Rosenberg that they “grapple” with delving into other news areas:

Though the context of that discussion centered on local crime and politics, it reveals that they have thought about pursuing ambitions beyond sports. While there would be a lot of risk of both sides in pursuing this avenue, there is also high potential reward. If Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight did prove that their proprietary election forecasting — which nailed the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections, but missed badly on the Trump primaries — could generate ample subscription revenue, it could be a home run.

With The Athletic joining The Atlantic and ABC News as potential landing spots for FiveThirtyEight, it will be interesting to see where the site ultimately ends up.