By David Hill - 07/23/13 11:32 PM EDT
Nate Silver’s move to the ESPN mother ship may be the best thing for all concerned.
Well, at the very least, it will be best for all who have to be concerned about paying the bills.
Yes, his audience is important and influential and geeky and all that, but it’s still small — tiny by ESPN standards.
Think of a mostly Silver number-busting channel running 24/7 for 365 days a year as trailing “The Ocho,” ESPN 8, as immortalized in the movie “Dodgeball.” It’s the realm of the obscure in sport.
Lots of Web clicks, even millions of clicks, for a few months every four years does not qualify as mass media by most standards.
There are just not enough political data geeks out there to make it past his 15 minutes of fame at The New York Times.
I started pondering this many years ago, probably before Silver was born, about the marketability of polls, the kind that Silver enjoys bundling.
I wanted to be able to syndicate poll results to newspapers and TV stations for money: edgy polls on sexy topics, not just presidential approval questions.
What I discovered is that newspaper readership surveys and TV news audience viewership studies don’t find there’s much of a mass-market demand for polling results.
Sure, a few people are interested, but stories covering poll results lag far behind in appeal when compared to advice-to-the-lovelorn columns, “Peanuts” cartoons, bridge columns and horoscopes.
Just a few years ago, when Web polling was in its infancy, the “hits consultants” that wanted to help you drive traffic to your site suggested often that Web polls would do so.
But the fine print said that Web polls attract new browsers who want to play for free. Practically no one wants to pay to play polling.
In fact, most times it’s the other way around. Internet users want you to pay them to do a poll if there’s money involved. They are surely not going to pay just to see some results on a topic that barely interests them.
Even an organization as well-known as Gallup has been challenged to build a paying audience. The Polling Report only charges for its more obscure state data, something geeks like me relish. But as a mass market fetish, no way.
So the story is that Silver is returning to his roots, to baseball data and the “Moneyball” culture that has evolved in other big-time money sports like the NBA and NFL.
I hope it works out for him. But I worry.
Yes, the sports junkie pool is much bigger than the political junkie pool, but the share of junkies who are data geeks is still relatively small.
Of course Silver doesn’t have to attract a huge audience by himself, but he needs just enough big shots in Bristol to cinch the big contract. But I am betting it doesn’t get renewed.
Remember those scenes in “Moneyball” where the old-school scouts expressed cynicism about data-driven performance analysis.
There are still lots of old-school folks out there on their couches, following their own hunches, just like there are politicians who don’t trust polls, even the ones they commission.
Someday, when Terminators rule the planet, we may all expect Silverball robots to be anchoring “Sports Center,” but that’s a ways off.
For the time being, the mass audience is still more likely to trust Chris Berman’s “he may go all the way” than Nate Silver’s beta-weighted chi-square test that says, “There’s a 53.67 percent chance he may go all the way, given his time in the 40 multiplied by his draft round divided by his body mass index.”
David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.