by Lindsay Sweet, CDAE/Community and International Development major at the University of Vermont.
In 2003, David Portnoy quit an unfulfilling job in sales to be his own boss and pursue a career he was truly passionate about. Portnoy conceptualized a newspaper focused around gambling tips and fantasy-sports projections, and began handing out the black and white publication for free at transit stops in Boston’s financial district. Along the way, his newspaper began to launch in other cities, sell branded merchandise, spread to the digital sphere, and set up college verticals. Characterized by extreme authenticity and transparency; no agenda, no filter, a bible of bro culture. Today, Portnoy, now most commonly know as “El Presidente,” sits in a state of the art office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District upon the digital media empire that serves as a driving force behind men’s culture and lifestyle, sports, and entertainment with a comedic and satirical twist. Humble beginnings transformed into Barstool Sports.
Today, Barstool Sports is valued somewhere between $10 and $15 million, the site is visited by 8 million uniques a month, up from a little more than one million five years ago, and their Instagram reaches two million monthly actives. Barstool’s main demographic are males ages 18 to 40, but especially worshiped by male millennials. Does #Saturdaysarefortheboys (#SAFTB) ring a bell? What about #vivalastool, “smokeshow,” “hardo,” or “One bite, you know the rules.” A CNBC headline from August 2017 went as far to say that “Barstool Sports could be the next ESPN.” In January 2016, The Chernin Group acquired a 51% stake in Barstool, vacuuming up majority ownership, but Portnoy still plays a major role, as he possesses complete creative control and editorial oversight. Following the acquisition, Barstool not only moved to the Big Apple, but the staff grew from a mere 15 to nearly 80 employees and 20 interns, to boost their bad mannered approach to sports coverage via video and podcasting efforts. Barstool Sports runs one of the most popular sports-related podcasts out there, “Pardon My Take,” according to Apple podcast rankings, hosted by Barstool personalities Big Cat and PFT (Pro Football Talk) Commenter, who has long remained anonymous. “Pardon My Take,” averages 750,000 to 1.5 million views per episode, (Forbes, 2017). From the perspective of Barstools most notable entourage members, their overall success is attributed to doing what makes them genuinely happy, as cliche as it might sound. “I always enjoyed writing. I always enjoyed f—ing around and doing the things that we do. That’s probably the reason we’re successful,” says Big Cat. “We’re just doing what we like to do. A lot of the stuff we do is stuff I was doing in college, chasing ghosts and s— like that. But now we turned it up and it’s a living.”
Despite what seems to be unmatched hype for Barstool, it has not completely evaded criticism and backlash. Barstool Sports has been described as misogynistic, crude, racist, sexist, and obnoxious, countless times in a variety of contexts. In fact, their unapologetically controversial reputation cost them their biggest media deal to date. ESPN officially canceled “Barstool Van Talk,” an offshoot of “Pardon My Take,” to which the network gave a spot on TV, not even a week after the first episode. The abrupt cancellation came after content concerns and intense pushback internally from employees. Not all pushback remained internal though. Sam Ponder, the host of the high-profile “Sunday N.F.L. Countdown,” tweeted screenshots from Barstool articles that included sexist and derogatory statements made about her years before, written by El Presidente himself, (NY Times, 2017). The one and only one episode, premiered on Oct 18th on ESPN2, at 1 AM EST with 88,000 viewers before ESPN President John Skipper cut the cord on October 23rd. The 10-day-old partnership took 8 months of hard work to close according to CEO Erika Nardini, (yes, the CEO of Barstool is a woman). Nardini is the former chief marketing officer at AOL, with other stints at Yahoo and Microsoft, (Business Insider, 2016). From both fan bases, the partnership seemed an odd fit. In the past, Barstool has relentlessly bullied ESPN and accused the network of lying over things like deflategate, and just last year ESPN’s lawyers sent Barstool a cease-and-desist letter over Pardon My Take, claiming its logo and name were too close to Pardon the Interruption and First Take ESPN shows. Moving forward, Barstool may need to consider whether its crude past is going to hinder its trajectory into the mainstream, but that doesn’t mean everyone is afraid of getting cozy with the Barstool brand. Nardini was brought in to make the company more professional and strike big deals, and she has as done just that by locking in deals with DirecTV, H&R Block, and Comedy Central and fully integrated partnerships with Bud Light, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Totino’s.
Barstool exemplifies the good, the bad, and the ugly of the digital media age. On one hand, Barstool is reprimanded for using social media as a weapon, to mock and degrade specific groups and celebrate shenanigans practiced by the the undyingly loyal “stoolies,” all shielded under the idea of humor. On the other hand, it represents a new kind of brand in the age of social media where communication is constant and a comedian has access to an audience at all times. Being tirelessly crazy, outrageous, and brutally honest doesn’t hurt either. The platform openly defies untouchable media corporations and aims to truly engage with its audience. Barstool has blended content, culture, and commerce to build a testosterone fueled powerhouse, for better or for worse. Over time, Barstool has managed to carve out a distinct voice in the sports commentary and men’s lifestyle realm, and its biggest players are steadfast they will not be changing their tone any time soon. Barstool might as well be the frat party that never ends.