For most upstart companies, losing its star turn on the mainstream media stage would be a huge setback. For Barstool Sports, it’s validation.
The brash but controversial brand had its collaboration with ESPN, “Barstool Van Talk,” canceled in October after just one episode when ESPN employees chafed at Barstool’s reputation among critics, who say the site is misogynistic.
David Portnoy launched Barstool more than a decade ago in Massachusetts, and the brand has become wildly popular among young male sports fans. Portnoy said ESPN is the loser in the breakup.
“They need our voice,” Portnoy said in a recent interview. “They need our demographic. They’re losing it, and we have it.”
The ESPN show was conceived as an offshoot of “Pardon My Take,” a podcast Barstool markets as “the loudest and most correct sports takes in the history of the spoken word.”
Portnoy and his team have spent the last decade cultivating a young male demographic with irreverent postings about sports and culture, scantily clad women dubbed “Smokeshows,” and occasional missives that their detractors say demean women.
When the Swampscott native sold a majority stake in the company to the Chernin Group last year for more than $10 million, some industry observers wondered if the site would alter its content to reach a broader mainstream audience.
But in a time when consumers have a growing appetite for media discourse that pushes the envelope, Barstool believes its signature brashness is a winning formula.
“I don’t think we change who are, what we stand for, or how we do it,” said chief executive Erika Nardini. “I’m really proud of those things.”
Media and branding specialists said the strategy makes sense from a business perspective, even if they’re not fans of the site, whose recent headlines included “Saudi Arabia Continues Downward Spiral, Grants Citizenship To Evil [expletive] Robot” and “Get A Load Of This Guy Flexing His Fantasy Football Championship Trophy To Land Girls At The Bar.”
“I think [Portnoy] sticking to his guns, from the brand perspective, is probably the correct approach,” said Tülin Erdem, a business professor at New York University who chairs the school’s marketing department.
Going more mainstream, she said, could “alienate their core [young male] group, which brought them here.”
Here, meaning a site that attracts millions of visitors every month, a podcast that frequently sits atop the iTunes most-downloaded rankings, and fast-selling merchandise available at their online store.
The success has come despite high-profile scandals dating back several years.
There were paparazzi photos posted in 2011 of Tom Brady’s nude toddler son playing on a beach, accompanied by Portnoy’s crude remark about the child’s genitalia.
Picketers protested a Barstool “Blackout” party the following year, incensed over what they said was an event that normalized campus rape culture. The demonstrators cited a blog post on the site that said Barstool doesn’t “condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties,” but “if [a] chick passes out, that’s a grey area though.’’
More recently, Portnoy came under fire for a crude 2014 blog post directed at an ESPN host.
In canceling “Barstool Van Talk,” ESPN president John Skipper said he “erred in assuming we could distance ourselves from the Barstool site and its content.”
But Nardini, a New Hampshire native who took the reins as Barstool chief executive last year, adamantly defended the site and said the content is played for laughs.
“I think Barstool stands for ‘everything should be funny,’ ” she said. “Sports should be funny. Nothing is sacred. And I think it stands for [the idea] that guys can be guys.”
And guys aren’t the only ones tuning in; Nardini said young women make up half the audience for a Barstool program on snapchat called “5th Year.”
She and Portnoy, though, conceded that their humor won’t have universal appeal.
“We’re a comedy brand that pokes fun at everybody,” Portnoy said. “If you want to pull things out of context, you can do that. This is the Internet. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.” He said he won’t let “the vocal minority, the extreme minority, tell us what we can laugh at and what we can’t laugh at.”
J.A. Adande, a former Los Angeles Times columnist who now directs the sports journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School, said the numbers back up Barstool’s brashness.
“There is a market for it,” said Adande, who also worked as a columnist and panelist at ESPN. “Clearly they’ve been successful. They might be viewed as one of the few modern media successes.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s cheering them on.
“The embrace of this ethos is troubling to me,” he said. “I just don’t understand why that’s necessary, to have your analysis of sports, why it has to be a clubhouse.”
Daniel T. Durbin, who heads USC’s Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media, and Society, echoed Adande’s remarks, writing in an e-mail that it makes sense for Barstool’s bottom line to forge ahead with their signature brand.
“Unfortunately, their brand is tied to some pretty shameful things,” Durbin wrote. “But, Howard Stern has shown that, in the current market, saying and doing any number of offensive things can keep eyes and ears on you.”
Barstool’s workplace culture also came under scrutiny last month, about two weeks before ESPN pulled the plug on “Van Talk.”
Elika Sadeghi went public with an account of passing on a job at an unnamed company, which Portnoy later confirmed was Barstool, over the summer after she refused to sign a contract clause that said she wouldn’t object “to speech and conduct that explicitly relates to sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability and age.”
Portnoy came out swinging, accusing Sadeghi of trying to capitalize on the Harvey Weinstein scandal to boost her own notoriety, and telling The Boston Globe that female attorneys drafted the contract language, which he said was common for entertainment companies. And, Portnoy said, he had offered to rewrite or withdraw the contract clause.
Sadeghi struck back in an e-mailed statement, writing that she did not recall such an offer.
“[B]ut frankly it’s irrelevant whether he offered to or not,” she said. “The clause raised serious concerns as to whether the company and I shared the same values. . . . My only ‘agenda’ was to start a conversation on the complexities of discussing harassment, whether as a personal experience or a societal issue.”
Portnoy and Nardini both vouched for their workplace culture, insisting the company is a welcoming place for female employees, with a zero-tolerance policy for harassment.
“Our content and our culture should not be confused,” Nardini said. “I think there is a difference between conformity and PC culture, and a positive working environment for all types of people, no matter their race, gender, or orientation. I think those two things are really different.”
Barstool’s October setbacks, while drawing criticism on social media, apparently haven’t affected company coffers.
“We made so much goddam money off people hating us these last 2 weeks I went out and bought a new company,” Portnoy tweeted on Oct. 27. “Announcement coming soon.”
Like many companies that experience rapid growth, Barstool has also been hit with litigation, including a civil rights lawsuit filed in September in New York.
A plaintiff named Phillip Sullivan Jr. says in his 23-page civil complaint that, as a deaf person, Barstool is violating his rights by not using closed caption technology on their videos, making it impossible for him to listen.
Portnoy sounded a note of skepticism when asked about the suit, saying it “sounds like someone using an old law to try to trip up an Internet company.”
Not so, according to Sullivan’s lawyer, C.K. Lee, who expressed hope that the “lawsuit will provide more sensitivity and awareness as to the social and accessibility barriers that the disabled face on a daily basis.”
Don’t expect equivocation from Portnoy, who repeatedly scoffed at Sullivan’s complaint, noting that Barstool could make accommodations for him if he contacted the company.
“That sounds like an ambulance-chasing deaf guy,” he said.