ESPN canceled Barstool Van Talk after 10 days and one aired episode. The show lasted less time than Anthony Scaramucci’s White House tenure. As with Scaramucci, the whole event sequence leaves one wondering what the heck is going on with ESPN’s internal decision-making.
One sentence from John Skipper’s statement shows the root problem.
“While we had approval on the content of the show, I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content.”
That contention is incredible since ESPN agreed to include Barstool branding on a show called “Barstool Van Talk.”
It’s no surprise ESPN was interested in this show. The network is trying to become cooler and funnier. Less older guys giggling at Frank Caliendo doing a Jon Gruden impression again. More Katie Nolan across all platforms, Desus & Mero on NBA coverage, and the guys behind Pardon My Take. Nothing is more “versatile” and au courant in 2017 media than a well-downloaded podcast.
Big Cat and PFT Commenter have great chemistry. Someone was going to give them a shot on TV. ESPN could try to co-opt their strong following or be a prominent part of their material on a rival network.
What’s surprising is that ESPN went with the idea. The benefits were negligible for the network. The potential trouble spots were glaring.
Hiring Big Cat and PFT Commenter away from Barstool would have been one thing. Partnering with the whole Barstool brand was another. That means an implicit association with Dave Portnoy and all of Barstool’s past (and future) writings and utterings.
The logical first question with such a partnership should have been what had been written and said about ESPN talent on Barstool, particularly ESPN women. Either ESPN blew by the Samantha Ponder thing like it was no problem or didn’t do even the cursory diligence to find it. Ponder, one of ESPN’s most high-profile women, should not have had to take that concern public.
That’s before getting to concerns about the taste level of some of Barstool’s offerings that would probably not go down well at Disney.
Real talk: Is this pumpkin tryna get the pipe? Discuss. pic.twitter.com/2Bh9coSuF3
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) October 17, 2017
Another surprise is that the NFL didn’t pull out its veto card as it did with Playmakers, ESPN’s involvement in the PBS Frontline documentary, and criticisms from high-profile talent. Much of Barstool’s brand building has been attacking Roger Goodell. They promoted themselves with a Goodell clown towel stunt this season.
The Barstool/ESPN partnership falling apart over something was inevitable. Even surmounting those aforementioned hurdles, it’s not clear how that show could be what it aspired to be on ESPN. It’s tough doing irreverent humor about sports there. You are discussing leagues (particularly the NFL) where ESPN is a beholden rights holder. You can’t discuss many prominent media stories involving ESPN. Disney is a large, family friendly corporation.
Of late, ESPN can’t help stumbling into self-inflicted controversies. Reactions to said controversies have been ad hoc and scattershot. The entity so concerned with PC optics that it stopped “Robert Lee” from calling a game at UVA to avoid a potential screenshot thought partnering with Barstool would go smoothly?
ESPN has been combatting the “MSESPN” narrative. Being the uptight, politically correct network does not appeal to males 18 to 34. Partnering with the “Pardon My Take” guys was a way to counter that perception. Instead, ESPN ended up dousing the liberal politics story’s embers with gasoline in less than a fortnight. This was another needless news story, over a show few people were going to watch on ESPN2 at 1:00 am ET. How predictable the demise was should have precluded the effort.
The dalliance between ESPN and Barstool was brief and will end up being a lot better for Portnoy and Barstool, especially if the story takes off in the conservative bubble. ESPN is only more entrenched as the place defined by its perceived politics and excited to offer you all the Mike Greenberg you can handle.