ESPN hires Nate Silver, but data was already a star

July 23, 2013: 5:16 PM ET

The sports giant had already learned to focus on using data to make editorial decisions.

By Kurt Wagner, reporter

FORTUNE -- When ESPN announced it was hiring Nate Silver and taking over his FiveThirtyEight blog on Monday, the move meant more than met the eye. The sports giant was also making a public declaration: big data drives content.

ESPN's (DIS) John Kosner, executive vice president of digital and print media, spoke at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. on Tuesday addressing the addition of Silver to its roster of analysts. But he also focused on the role that data already plays at the company.

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ESPN is dealing with immense amounts of data—from web traffic and fantasy sports information to actual game stats. That information has had an impact on the company's content strategy, said Kosner. "If we just had the raw data, we'd be powerless," says Kosner. "We're making [on the fly] decisions, and that's because the data is available in a way we can use."

In some cases that may simply be providing data -- poll results or viewership information -- as content in and of itself. More likely going forward is that ESPN will utilize real-time data to maximize the content they've already created. What does this mean in practice?

Kosner gave a recent example: Last April the site dedicated its front page to the ongoing NBA Playoff series between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. Data showed that fans were actually more interested in the third-round of the NFL Draft, which was occurring at the same time but taking a backseat to the NBA Playoffs on the homepage. Ultimately, ESPN altered its homepage, moving the NFL draft to the forefront. "Using real-time data, we make a fix that is invisible to the fan but that better serves people," he said. "We do that all day long."

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Don't expect newly signed Silver to sit in the back room crunching numbers. (Kosner says ESPN already employs around 50 "rocket scientists" who do that kind of work.) The former New York Times blogger gained fame and a devoted following after using analytics to successfully predict the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

And while you won't see him on TV as often as many of ESPN's other notable analysts, his skillset and strong following simply add to what ESPN views the future of sports content. "The marriage of analytics to storytelling," said Kosner, "is central to what we do and what we see gong forward."

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