One of 2017’s most notable media stories was the way Barstool Sports made news all year long, good and bad. From their own accomplishments to their feuds with leagues and networks, they wound up in the headlines throughout the year. And it looks like that’s going to continue in 2018. But first, it’s worth examining 2017 for Barstool, and how through highs and lows, they managed to become an even larger force on the sports media landscape.
The year started off in promising fashion for Barstool with the Jan. 3 launch of a daily two-hour radio show on Sirius XM. Airing at noon Eastern Monday to Friday on the “Rush” channel (93), the show featured founder Dave Portnoy and other Barstool personalities (Kevin “KFC” Clancy and Caleb Pressley became regular co-hosts) talking sports in typical Barstool style, but also discussing their company’s various initiatives, taking listener calls, interviewing guests and more. And it proved an interesting foray into more conventional media for Barstool. Podcasts had long been successful for them, but a two-hour daily radio show is a different beast. The show certainly found its fans, though, and helped pave the way for more Barstool content outside their site proper.
Later in January, we saw the next step in that evolution when Comedy Central announced they’d televise four half-hour Barstool specials live from Houston during the week of the Super Bowl. Those specials again saw Barstool taking something they’d previously done on their site, in this case the regular video show The Rundown, and bringing it to a different medium. Portnoy, Clancy and Dan “Big Cat” Katz hosted these specials, promoted as bringing “The Wild West of the internet” to TV, and they wound up making some big splashes with them, particularly with a live press conference where Colts’ punter Pat McAfee announced he was retiring from the NFL to join Barstool to “make the world a happier place.”
The specials, airing at midnight Eastern during that week, drew decent numbers for a sports show, pulling in 310,000 viewers Monday, 242,000 Tuesday, 230,000 Wednesday and 217,000 Thursday. That’s better than FS1’s Undisputed did that week (and better than it usually does), but the morning to evening comparison isn’t apples to apples, and neither is the Comedy Central to FS1 comparison. Barstool’s specials wound up pulling similar numbers to the Futurama reruns typically airing in that slot, and maintaining about the same percentage (50 to 80 per cent) of the @midnight lead-in.
So it wasn’t necessarily a gangbusters success for Comedy Central. But it did suggest that Barstool’s product at least somewhat translated to conventional TV, and that there was a decent audience for it (especially by late-night sports standards). That would prove important later in the year.
While the Super Bowl brought Barstool some conventional legitimacy on the TV front, it also saw them in the middle of a controversy thanks to the NFL pulling the outlet’s Super Bowl week credentials at the last minute. That meant that they had to cancel a bunch of Radio Row appearances. The league’s reasoning was that Barstool figures (including Portnoy) held a sit-in at the NFL offices back in May 2015 to protest commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Deflategate scandal, and that it “doesn’t credential people who have been involved in such antics.”
But that perhaps wound up being a win for Barstool in the end. It brought them a lot of further attention — more than they probably would have gotten from any Radio Row appearances — it led to Goodell being asked about the ban (and denying he knew about it), and it gave them material to riff on during their Comedy Central specials. If Barstool had been allowed in, they’d have been a small part of the regular zaniness of Media Day and Radio Row; keeping them out probably gave them more attention.
This was far from the only Barstool-NFL fight this year saw, with the next one coming in March when Katz somehow crashed a NFL competition committee conference call and proposed quite the change to extra points and nameplates:
“Good afternoon gentlemen. missed extra points were a big story this year. Have you guys discussed the possibility of eliminating extra points and having a control center where a greased up Andy Reid climbs the goalposts like a Double Dare challenge? Could be fun. Quick follow up, could you get rid of the “Sr.” suffix on the nameplates, cause it’s kind of a brag that the player had sex at some point? It’s also kind of a family television deal.”
Jumping ahead a bit on thematic grounds, Barstool’s feud with the NFL continued in September when they gave away 70,000 Goodell clown towels at the New England Patriots’ home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. They reportedly spent $140,000 on the towels, and that was with the donation of space and services from a company with a warehouse near Gillette Stadium.
Was it worth it? Well, the stunt definitely got them attention, with occasional shots of the towels on the NBC broadcast, and it drew more headlines when a Tom Brady-signed towel was auctioned off for $6,500 at Matt Light’s charity event later in September. It also furthered their image as a company willing to take on the NFL wherever possible. And that continued in December, where Barstool sent the NFL a cease-and-desist over “Sundays are for…” t-shirts that they claimed were too close to their “Saturdays are for the boys” slogan.
The year wasn’t just about NFL fights for Barstool, though. They made more conventional news this summer with big-name hires, bringing in Michael Rapaport in June, Dallas Braden in August and Julie Stewart-Binks in September. And they got plenty of attention thanks to comments from those and other new personalities, including McAfee talking about why he hates former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, Rapaport bringing his podcast over, and Braden discussing perfect games and smoking marijuana. The summer also saw Barstool talk with FS1 about a late-night show, and while a show with Fox didn’t come to fruition, they wound up with the late-night Barstool Van Talk on ESPN2, which was first reported early in October and then officially launched Oct. 17.
The saga of Barstool Van Talk was perhaps the most notable part of the year for the company. The show, featuring Katz and PFT Commenter, brought in some elements from the duo’s popular Pardon My Take podcast while also featuring new segments, and had interviews with prominent sports media personalities from Scott Van Pelt to Dan Patrick. It was highly unusual by ESPN standards, but it looked like an interesting experiment for the network, and a chance to perhaps attract the younger viewers they’ve regularly been chasing. Its debut audience of 88,000 wasn’t near the Super Bowl Comedy Central numbers, but it wasn’t bad for an ESPN2 show airing at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday. And the on-show material wasn’t all that controversial. However, Barstool Van Talk came under fire before it even got off the ground thanks to previous controversial comments from Katz, Portnoy and others, specifically those about new coworker Sam Ponder.
Ponder ripped Barstool the day before the show launched, which led to lots of coverage of the things they’d said about her, ranging from “We want to see you sex it up and be slutty and not see some prude f*cking jerk who everybody hates,” “you fucking slut” and “a chick that has a job where the #1 requirement is you make men hard” (Portnoy) to “There’s no one worse right now than Samantha Ponder” and “There is nothing worse in the world that people who think that we give a fuck about your kid” (Katz). And while she was the most prominent ESPN figure to publicly denounce Barstool, there was reportedly internal backlash from many others, to say nothing of large amounts of external criticism of ESPN for aligning themselves with Barstool and its often-controversial content. That led to ESPN president John Skipper cancelling the show after just one episode, saying “I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content.”
The most remarkable part of the Barstool Van Talk saga may be that statement. It’s perhaps understandable how Skipper got there, as ESPN regularly states that their own network is not a monolith and that controversial decisions, comments or anything else don’t reflect the company as a whole.
However, as this year’s numerous political controversies showed, much of the world doesn’t accept that argument when it comes to ESPN, so it seems a little silly to think that it would work with an outlet like Barstool that’s regularly much more controversial and has a long history of publishing and airing provocative content, to the degree that they even got in a controversy after one potential employee said she turned them down over their requirement of signing a waiver that states employees don’t object to “offensive speech” or “speech and conduct that explictly relates to sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability and age.” This is an outlet that always has been and likely always will be controversial, and you can’t distance yourself from that if you work with them.
It seems particularly silly for ESPN to take the risks and backlash involved in teaming up with Barstool with them for one weekly show aired at 1 a.m. on ESPN2. Yes, ESPN had control over what would actually show up on their airwaves, and nothing on Barstool Van Talk itself (at least in the one episode that aired) was likely to cause too many problems for them, but that wasn’t going to remove the internal and external backlash for associating with the brand. As Portnoy himself said in a Facebook Live rant after the cancellation, “How stupid were you to think you could get Barstool without getting Barstool?”
The other companies that have teamed up with Barstool appear to know what they’re getting, and it hasn’t stopped them. Facebook partnered with the brand for a Facebook Watch college football tailgate show, and the deletion of a much-criticized post calling an Ohio State women’s hockey goalie the hottest college athlete around the same time wasn’t at Facebook’s request, but at the request of the athlete involved. The Facebook show only lasted six weeks before being mutually cancelled, but Barstool talked about further partnerships with the social network at that point. And Facebook’s a key platform for them, for everything from written content to podcasts to Facebook Live to short-form documentaries (another area Barstool dove into this year).
Beyond that, Barstool bought West Virginia-based fight promotion Rough N Rowdy in November and hyped up plans not just to air their events on a pay-per-view basis, but create shoulder programming around them with Barstool personalities. They’ve also mused about a sports bar chain and a premium content service with “a bunch of extra shit.” And perhaps their most notable outside partnership is with Sirius, where they announced in November that they’ll be taking over a whole channel in the new year.
While ESPN decided teaming up with Barstool wasn’t worth the backlash in the end, the dissolution of that partnership certainly hasn’t stopped other companies from working with Barstool. And that show’s cancellation may not be a negative for Barstool at all; there’s some merit to Portnoy’s comments of “Oh my god, ESPN, you just played right into our hands.” The Barstool Van Talk cancellation means that they don’t have an ESPN2 show, but the whole saga got them a lot of further attention, and perhaps even boosted their reputation as a cooler ESPN alternative.
Barstool isn’t an across-the-board ESPN competitor, especially when it comes to live games, but they’re competing with them in some podcast, radio and video spaces, and being “too extreme for ESPN” isn’t a bad branding position with the audience that they’re going for. So while 2017 in general and Barstool Van Talk in particular may not have worked out exactly as Barstool planned, and while that and other events brought plenty of negative scrutiny from critics, the company continued to grow, continued to make news, and continued to attract its fans. We’ll see how 2018 pans out for them and where they go from here, but they’ve definitely turned into a notable sports media player. And backlash from ESPN, the NFL and others hasn’t slowed them down much. If anything, it may have helped that growth.