Started by Dave Portnoy in 2003, Barstool Sports has grown from a print magazine, distributed by hand to bars around the Boston area, to a one of the most influential sports media companies in the world. They have transitioned into a massive player on social media with their own account @barstoolsports and @oldrowofficial, having 2.9 million and almost 800k followers respectively. Barstool’s most popular podcast, Pardon My Take is regularly the most downloaded sports podcast on iTunes. Barstool is credited with creating the cult followed hashtag #saturdaysarefortheboys, which has become a symbol of the “bro culture.”
While many rightly state that the site is often lewd, infantile, and many times downright offensive, there is no denying that it has leveraged social media and become an extremely successful digital business at the hands of Mr. Portnoy, or El Presidente as Barstool followers (also known as stoolies) refer to him. In 2016, Barstool Sports took investment from The Chernin Group, selling 51% for roughly $15 million and effectively ending Portnoy’s ownership of the company. To best understand Barstool, it’s important to break down their presence into three parts: website/blog, social media, and podcasts.
Barstool Sports started as a simple blog and has grown to include gambling odds, a merchandise store, and seven specific cities in which receive tailored content. The majority of the content is in the form of blogs which range from comments on the current events of the day, to classic sports commentary and rankings, to re-posting incidents of debauchery. The most followed writers such as KFC, Big Cat, and Jerry Thornton have gained cult-like followings and even spun off podcasts. In past two years, Barstool has become such a powerful sports outlet that it has been able recruit away talents like Jerry Thornton from his radio show and column at WEEI in Boston and PFT Commenter from SB Nation. The website garners 6 million unique web traffics per month and advertising on the website is by far Barstool’s largest revenue generator. One of the fastest growing sectors of the Barstool revenue stream is its merchandise store, which the company has stated has done 400% year-over-year growth. This can be largely attributed to the popularity of such phrases such as Saturday’s Are For The Boys, which has been adopted to various colleges such as Saturday’s Are For The Eagles and so on. One of the most well known and widely recognized merchandise campaigns centered around the Tom Brady “Deflategate” conspiracy, which has led to the “Fire Goodell” and “Goodell Clown” hats and t-shirts. These items become senses of Barstool follower pride. It is clear that sports fans are inherently very passionate about their favorite teams and Barstool serves to play up these sport rivalries and fiery passions.
Barstool uses their Social Media accounts, specifically Instagram and Twitter, to expand their reach from their fanatical following in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago to a nationally popular sports media outlet. With their acquisition on Old Row, Barstool has gained a key foothold in the southern “Frat Bro” culture that they hope to be able to use to bring Barstool to the South. If an uninitiated were scroll through the feed of Barstool, many would be appalled by the amount of drinking, absurdity, and antics. One would be hard-pressed to believe that this was a multi-million dollar business that has the attention of millions each month. Right or wrong, the reach that this business has on the millennial population cannot be denied. While an extremely controversial and highly criticized figure (earlier this morning Samantha Ponder of ESPN had some harsh words for him), Dave Portnoy has a strong social media following for his One Bite series, which may be the most tame series featured on Barstool. One Bite has Portnoy traveling around New York City, and the country, sampling pizza and rating on a 1-10 decimal scale and has featured athletes like Brice Harper. It is these one off quotes such as Saturday’s are for the Boys and One bite, everybody knows the rules, that have contributed to the viral nature of Barstool’s online presence and thus fueled their advertising and rapid merchandise growth.
Barstool has grown its written sports coverage to spoken word through podcasts. Barstool offers numerous podcasts including its most popular Pardon My Take, a podcast focused on each major American sport such as Spittin’ Chiclets for Hockey, one focusing on the military, one focused on MMA and the UFC, and some created by Barstool writers such as KFC Radio and the I Am Rappaport show by Michael Rappaport. Their quick and massive expansion into the podcast realm accentuates their ability to quickly respond to trends and stay up to the moment relevant (a feature CEO Erika Nardini has cited as pivotal to their success) to their readers and listeners. Pardon My Take’s duo Big Cat and PFT (Pro Football Talk) Commenter have become so popular in the last 18 months that they have been featured in GQ and late last week announced that they will be hosting Barstool’s first show on ESPN “Barstool Van Talk.” This demonstrates a major step forward for Barstool as its only previous foray into the TV sector was a broadcast of their popular daily feature of the Rundown on Comedy Central. Some ardent Barstool supporters have criticized the move as “selling out” to ESPN, which in the past has been harshly denounced by the site in the past. While this perception is a major threat to alienating its strong base of support, I believe the opportunity for national exposure has much more upside for the company than downside.
Outside the Norms
While Barstool is continually in the news for making lewd, sexist, or insensitive remarks, it has withstood all previous criticism in the past due to it operating free from conventional media outlet constraints. The controversy surrounding Barstool has only served to heighten its notoriety or infamy across the country and it does not look to be slowing down anytime soon.
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