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FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver writes about next frontier in sports stats for ESPN The Magazine’s “Analytics Issue”

Nate Silver’s article for The Mag examines “[sports] topics once thought to be beyond the realm of analytics.” (Illustration by Sean McCabe/For ESPN The Magazine)
Nate Silver
Nate Silver

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference presented by ESPN begins Friday in Boston. The Analytics Issue of ESPN The Magazine anticipates the annual conference, a forum of professionals and students to discuss sports statistics and trends. Nate Silver, statistician, author, founder of analytics website FiveThirtyEight and a scheduled featured speaker at the conference, authored “Dark Matter: The Search for Intelligent Life” in the Analytics Issue.

Silver contemplates how “Dark Matter” in sports – intangibles such as potential, chemistry, momentum – can matter in performance. The next challenge for sports analytics is measuring such things. ESPN The Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Chad Millman and senior editor Megan Greenwell weigh in on producing the Analytics Issue – now on newsstands – and working with Silver.

What prompted Silver’s article on “Dark Matter” for this issue?
CM: I shot Nate a note of some themes we were going to hit on in the issue and asked him to put together an essay that captured those ideas. A few days later he filed a piece that was pretty spot on.

How challenging is it to present analytics to readers who might not be as familiar with the topic?
CM: It’s challenging because of the language that’s involved – lots of stats and names and math that don’t make it into the everyday sports conversation at the broadest levels. Although that is changing, you hear it on broadcasts and see it on SportsCenter. But at the end of the day, the numbers are just another way to tell a story. Once we are able to find that thread, the analytics supporting an idea are no different than talking about where someone is from or how they succeed.
MG: This is the third year for the Analytics Issue (and the second year I’ve helped produce it), and the fun part is that readers get more and more familiar with analytics every year. We felt comfortable creating the more advanced “Dark Matter” theme for this year’s issue because readers have been so receptive to our previous Analytics Issues. It was exciting to step things up a bit while still relying on the powerful storytelling and graphics that have made it a tentpole issue for The Mag.

What does working with Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight mean to ESPN?
CM: Nate is great and has proven he has an ability to translate complex ideas into something we all understand. And that’s an invaluable skill. But I’ve been even more impressed with the team he’s gathered. What they’re trying to do is hard, but they’re amazingly thoughtful about the content they want to produce and the people who will be doing it. That’s powerful for the rest of ESPN.
MG: I’d just add that it’s so exciting for us to be able to work with a team of people who are pushing sports analytics to a whole new level. We were so thrilled to have Nate in the issue, and we can’t wait to work with [FiveThirtyEight] more going forward.

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