Media bad boy Barstool Sports thriving in politically correct climate: ‘We're pretty rare’
Barstool Sports is flourishing as media’s raunchy bad boy in today's politically correct climate, and CEO Erika Nardini says their secret formula is simple: Not “giving a f---.”
Barstool founder Dave Portnoy, known by fans as “El Presidente,” says his company is essentially a comedy empire camouflaged as a sports website that never sought its anti-PC reputation.
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“That’s just who we are,” Portnoy told Fox News during a candid side-by-side conversation with Nardini at Barstool’s New York City headquarters. “We create content at Barstool Sports for people who like Barstool Sports. We’re not trying to appease people who don’t like us. Everyone is just so sensitive now about everything."
"We’re not trying to appease people who don’t like us. Everyone is just so sensitive now about everything."
Barstool employees have been accused of everything from encouraging online harassment by its fans to using derogatory language about women. The site’s content is often vulgar, alleged marital infidelity of one of the brand’s biggest stars has become tabloid fodder, and Portnoy was physically removed from the Super Bowl earlier this month amid an on-going feud with the National Football League -- but fans seem to embrace it all.
“We have an audience, we have a point of view, we do things differently and we’re investing in that,” Nardini said. “It’s not that we’re controversial. We’re unafraid."
Portnoy started Barstool as a “gambling and sports” newspaper he distributed around Boston back in 2003 and things exploded from there. He sold a majority stake of Barstool to The Chernin Group in early 2016, moving the company’s headquarters from Boston to New York City in the process. Portnoy stuck around to oversee content and hired Nardini as the company's first CEO.
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Since then, Barstool has added roughly 130 employees and partnered with social media brands like Snapchat and Facebook. The company’s podcasts bring in 25 million live streams per month and all together, over 1 billion minutes of Barstool content is consumed annually.
“The evaluation when Chernin invested the first time was $12.5 million, it’s been revalued at $100 million,” Portnoy said. “There has been explosive growth… far exceeding what the initial expectations were.”
Barstool also runs a Sirius XM station, created a pizza review app, promotes amateur boxing matches, wants to invest in younger brands and sells a ton of merchandise. Commerce makes up roughly half of Barstool’s revenue and a company spokesperson said it sold over $1 million worth of gear during the 2018 World Series alone.
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When veteran technology executive Nardini joined Barstool in July 2016, it was more than a year before the emergence of the #MeToo era and a few months before Donald Trump’s shock Election Day victory. Both events have altered the culture of many media companies, but Nardini didn’t mess with Portnoy’s formula, despite the changing landscape.
“The ethos of the company hasn’t changed since I started it,” Portnoy said. “I don’t really care what people think about me… we’ve been able to stay true to that through the #MeToo movement, through everything.”
Portnoy has complete confidence in the morals and ethics of everyone on his staff, and not catering to advertisers gives him an advantage over the “BuzzFeeds of the world,” because he has the ability to turn down ad dollars.
“We just kind of stay true to ourselves,” he said. “As a result people have become very attracted to the brand. If an advertiser doesn’t like what we’re saying, don’t advertise.”
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As Barstool grows, its enemies become more ferocious. Barstool has been the subject of numerous unfavorable stories, was abruptly yanked off ESPN when old comments Portnoy made about the network’s Samantha Ponder resurfaced, and the company is kept out of NFL events after a series of incidents upset league brass.
While the #MeToo era hasn’t changed Barstool’s approach, Portnoy admitted that his critics keep him on his toes and it’s his responsibility to ensure content doesn’t go viral for the wrong reasons.
“Let’s not just put the ball on a tee for them. Let’s not just say things that you know will be used to attack us,” Portnoy said. "Make sure it’s funny. If it’s funny, then still keep that same mantra we’ve always had.”
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Barstool’s fan base, known as “Stoolies,” has increased while digital media brands like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have been hit with recent layoffs. But Nardini thinks it’s impossible for struggling mainstream brands to take a page from Barstool's playbook and have some fun, predicting a “large death” among digital media companies in 2019.
“You already see it,” Nardini said.
She feels that a major issue for beleaguered media companies is that many of them depend solely on advertising to generate revenue, because the advertisers eventually dictate content – something Barstool won’t consider because it puts Stoolies above profits.
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“Advertisers like things that are PC and brightly lit,” Nardini said. “As a result companies are now trying to diversify but it’s very hard. Instead of choosing audience, which is what Barstool has always chosen, they chose revenue. We’re really loyal to our audience.”
Portnoy, who has referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as “an absolute idiot,” credits him for helping Barstool maintain an “outsider, renegade, rebel vibe” despite being a massive company.
“We’re fairly well established but he, more than any single other human, has done more for our marketing to keep that authenticity,” Portnoy said. “He’s been a real blessing.”
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Barstool essentially taunts the NFL honcho on a regular basis, dating back to the 2015 “Deflategate” incident that resulted in Portnoy’s favorite team – the New England Patriots – landing in hot water for allegedly forcing a small amount of air from each of quarterback Tom Brady's footballs.
When Brady was eventually suspended by the league, Portnoy and three other Barstool staffers were arrested while protesting outside the NFL’s Manhattan headquarters.
Barstool responded by creating the now-infamous merchandise featuring an image of Goodell wearing a clown nose. Anti-Goodell shirts quickly became popular in New England, while towels sporting the image were handed out at Patriots games. The shirts have been worn by everyone from Portnoy himself to Patriots assistant-turned-current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, embarrassing Goodell in the process.
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The NFL remains unfriendly to Barstool as a result, and security guards literally dragged Portnoy out of the Super Bowl earlier this month. But Nardini didn’t seem to mind watching her business partner get ejected from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- especially since video of the moment quickly went viral.
“If you look at the top five players from the game, across social media, Dave Portnoy is No. 4 and he’s not even an athlete,” she said. “We had zero marketing dollars [invested].”
The NFL declined comment when reached by Fox News.
Portnoy’s attitude regarding free speech has left him embraced by conservatives and he’s often a guest of Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” but the Barstool founder says he’s not overtly political.
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“My political party doesn’t exist,” Portnoy said. “I consider myself like a Libertarian, financially conservative and socially liberal, but Barstool has always stayed away from, for the most part, politics and religion.”
“I consider myself like a Libertarian, financially conservative and socially liberal, but Barstool has always stayed away from, for the most part, politics and religion.”
Portnoy points his content producers away from these polarizing topics because he feels consumers already have their minds made up, rendering humor pointless.
“They won’t even listen to the joke,” he said.
Portnoy considers any brand that can potentially compete with Barstool for ad dollars as his competition, ranging from ESPN to comedy companies. But while Barstool has a variety of rivals when it comes to generating revenue, Portnoy doesn’t see any peers when it comes to creating content.
“I don’t think we have a competitor. We’re pretty rare. I think, more often than not, people will be looking at what we do and trying to react to how we create content,” Portnoy said. “I think we’re generally ahead of the curve.”
He feels that upstart sports media brand The Athletic, which is behind a paywall, isn’t worth paying for and predicted far-left sports blog Deadspin “will be gone” in a couple of years.
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The chaotic, two-floor Manhattan Barstool headquarters is cluttered and feels more like a frat house preparing to host a beer pong tournament than the office of a budding media empire. Many staffers wear sweatpants to the office and leadership makes sure to refer to its writers as “bloggers,” as opposed to “journalists” or even “writers.” The company is moving to a larger space later this year, complete with high-tech production facilities – but the staffers aren’t expected to go corporate anytime soon.
“It’s the same culture, the same people… it doesn’t matter where we go, we Barstool-ize it,” Portnoy said.
Barstool is home to sports satirists such as "Pardon My Take” hosts Big Cat and PFT Commenter – who are full-blown stars in the sports media landscape these days. But it is also home to “Call Her Daddy,” a podcast that revolves around hosts Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper talking about their sex lives.
Barstool’s next venture, “The Big Brain,” involves a quest to find young companies or ideas to invest in, which Portnoy described as a cross between “The Apprentice” and “Shark Tank.” He says everything including food, sports and sex make up the “lifestyle brand” that he envisions. As a result, he want to attract anyone who is willing to go through life without taking things too seriously.
“All these different pieces come together to create our world,” Portnoy said.
Ironically, Portnoy is arguably more known for his pizza reviews than he is for sports, gambling or comedy. He started recording “One Bite” pizza reviews on a daily basis when he moved to New York and they attracted food enthusiasts from all walks of life – expanding his fan base from typical “Stoolies.”
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Portnoy initially didn’t know if anyone would care about his idea to grade pizza parlors but it resonated with viewers so he stuck with it. The concept became so popular that Barstool launched a standalone “One Bite” app dedicated to reviewing pizza in 2018. “One Bite” now has the ability to determine the fate of a mom-and-pop pizza shop simply by receiving a strong score from Portnoy. Portnoy reviews a different slice of pizza on daily basis, whether he is in New York City or not, and the app allows users to post their own reviews.
Nardini feels the pizza reviews are the perfect example of what has made Barstool successful since it began as a low-risk experiment.
“A really talented person had a really good idea… we’re seeing it has an impact on local business. That also creates business opportunities for us,” she said, adding that Barstool might have created the largest directory of pizza in America.
“A lot of people do know me as the pizza guy and its opening up new people to Barstool and myself,” he said. “We’ve proven, we can almost do anything."