So on a balmy day in October, Portnoy — who looks like Mark Zuckerberg after five years of hard drinking and even harder tanning — called an “emergency press conference” in his offices to address the cancellation of “Van Talk.” Portnoy’s addresses to readers tend to ramble and veer off on tangents, but they do so triumphantly. This one was no different: He sidled up to a makeshift lectern made out of a water jug, stared straight into a camera and delivered an unapologetic seven-minute rant. “We’re not going to let Mickey Mouse push us around,” he said, referring to Disney, which owns ESPN. “There is actually nothing that ESPN could have done to illustrate” — he meant better illustrate — “why we are rising and they are falling.”
El Presidente, who grew up in Swampscott, Mass., an upper-middle-class suburb, isn’t the most obvious choice for a champion of the common man, but he does describe his own life as thoroughly, unceasingly average. He says he did O.K. in school and was an O.K. baseball player. He considers himself an average-looking guy. He attended the University of Michigan, where, he says, he had average fun with his average friends. His rise to prominence came not from his skills as a sports analyst but from his ability to sniff out untapped markets. After graduating from Michigan in 1999, he worked in the sales department of a consulting firm in Boston but quickly tired of corporate life. He wanted to start his own business, preferably in the gambling scene. In 2003, on a trip to Las Vegas, he met with people in the online-gaming industry and found them desperate for places to advertise. Portnoy’s idea was to start a sports publication that might be attractive to poker advertisers — and because the only ad model that seemed viable at the time was in print, he planned to pass it out as a tabloid at T stops throughout Boston.
Early in the decade, the only sports blogs with any significant audience were Sports by Brooks — which mostly aggregated news — and the writer Bill Simmons’s column on AOL’s Digital City Boston. (I later worked for Simmons for three years at Grantland, the ESPN website where he was editor in chief.) Portnoy revered Simmons and agreed with his assessment that Boston’s sports coverage, which was still centered in the column inches of The Globe and The Herald, had grown stale and out of touch with the common man. Not so for Portnoy: In an early mock-up, calling himself Devilfish Dave, he wrote that “the people at Barstool Sports are a bunch of average Joes, who like most guys love sports, gambling, golfing and chasing short skirts.”
Barstool went through the usual spate of early hardships, and there’s every chance that had it been born out of some actual journalistic ideal, it would have folded within the year. But Portnoy’s talent was for gathering feedback from readers and advertisers and tweaking his product accordingly: “We could pivot really easily,” he told me, “and chase money.” The first breakthrough came when a local photographer told Portnoy he should start putting photos of area women on the tabloid’s covers — and offered to take the pictures himself. (A version of this idea still exists on the website, under the title “Local Smokeshow of the Day.”) Around the same time, Portnoy noticed that readers seemed to respond more to stories about drinking, women and gambling than day-to-day sports news. He sold ads to bars and breweries and catered more and more to a certain archetypal Boston bro — the type who puts on a collared shirt to get blackout drunk every weekend while ruefully cheering on the Red Sox. His writing voice fell into a distinct rhythm, half-cocked and prone to fits of anger. When he finally mustered up a web version of Barstool, it looked like a relic from the 1990s and often crashed, but he called such inconveniences “the Barstool difference” — a sign, he maintained, of true authenticity.
By the time Barstool began publishing, Simmons had started a national column for ESPN and moved to Los Angeles to write for television. Portnoy had Boston to himself. “When Bill was writing on Digital Cities, he was reaching regular guys like me,” Portnoy told me. “I’m reaching the new me.”
Whether he knew it or not, Portnoy was also building a modern online-media business well before its time — with low overhead, an investment in brand loyalty and diversified revenue streams that could withstand fluctuations in advertising. He started hawking T-shirts and merchandise on the site, another venture that fell prey to the Barstool difference; printing and shipping could take months. He built up a network of bloggers in other cities, like Dan Katz in Chicago and Kevin Clancy in New York — Big Cat and KFC, per their Barstool nicknames. When Portnoy realized that readers were more invested in these bloggers as personalities than in their opinions on sports, he began turning the site into a sort of online reality show: Every office argument and personal-life development was written up and fed to a growing legion of “Stoolies.”
Part of what Barstool offered these readers was escapism, something that retains a lot of power among sports fans who still see games as a nightly release from their responsibilities. The site’s enduring slogan, “Saturdays Are for the Boys,” promises a day free from girlfriends and wives. Search for the phrase on social media, and you’ll find videos of Stoolies relaxing at beach houses, on boats or at tailgates, surrounded by nothing but shirtless men; in some, they actually push women out of the camera’s frame. Sports could also be a reprieve from office work. In his initial mock-up, in 2003, Portnoy wrote that “we don’t take ourselves very seriously and view working at Barstool Sports as a way to avoid becoming slaves to cubicle life.” When Clancy, who calls himself “the king of average,” started writing Barstool New York, he was working as an accountant at Deloitte; when he saw that his tales of mind-numbing corporate boredom were getting traction with readers, he began writing a column called “Cubicle Chronicles,” grumbling rancorously about everything from bad coffee to the “fat secretary blasting Dominic the [expletive] Donkey” around Christmas.
The only thing the Stoolies wouldn’t do, it turned out, was “politics.” For the most part, Portnoy and his readers employed the time-honored bro tactic of saying they had no problem with anyone — until, of course, “anyone” started complaining. A particularly illustrative example of this can be found in an article from 2009, in which a reader informed Portnoy about the “Fagbug,” an art installation aimed at raising awareness about homophobic violence. “I could give a [expletive] less if somebody is gay or not,” Portnoy responded, insisting that, much as he enjoyed the female anatomy, if another man preferred the male one, then “more power to him.” But what, he asked, was the point of the installation? “I thought gay dudes hated being called fags? Or is this like when a black person uses the N-word as a compliment?” He closed by saying all this “fag talk” reminded him of last night’s television: Did anyone else see Adam Lambert on “American Idol”? Every line was aimed directly at dudes who, like Portnoy, would not identify as bigots, but who also scratched their heads at the weird tendencies of anyone who wasn’t exactly like them, self-proclaimed common men.
By 2010, Barstool was doing well enough that Portnoy had an office in Milton, Mass., local pages for New York, Chicago and Philadelphia and a handful of employees, including the future YouTube megastar Jenna Mourey, a.k.a. Jenna Marbles. That year, he hired a local white rapper named Sammy Adams and set up a tour of New England colleges. “When we showed up on the campuses, they had our signs on their dorms, people were rushing after our bus,” he told me. “That was the first time I really thought this might be bigger than I anticipated.”
The following year, he started a nationwide party tour called “Barstool Blackout.” The college students who attended danced under blacklights and occasionally — the obvious implication — drank until they blacked out. (One of the slogans: “By the C- student, for the C- student.”) It was Barstool’s first real encounter with controversy. Early in 2012, students in the Boston area demonstrated against the Blackout Parties, claiming that they promoted rape culture and circulating Portnoy’s writings on the subject. “Just to make friends with the feminists,” he’d written on the site, “I’d like to reiterate that we don’t condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties in mid-January. However, if a chick passes out, that’s a gray area though.” And: “Though I never condone rape, if you’re a Size 6 and you’re wearing skinny jeans, you kind of deserve to be raped, right?” The parties, which were held at private spaces near campuses, went ahead as planned. Portnoy issued no retractions or apologies. “I think the controversy probably helped us,” he says now. “Our fans liked that we didn’t back down. They realized that I was on their side.”
In January 2016, Portnoy stood in Times Square, dressed in a tuxedo and flanked by Clancy, Katz and a Barstool editor, Keith Markovich. After a few bars of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” he made what he called a “shocking” announcement: “I am no longer the majority owner of Barstool Sports. We have taken investment from an investment company called Chernin Digital.” He went on to describe Peter Chernin — head of the Chernin Group, the former president of News Corporation and the Fox film executive who greenlit “Titanic” and “Avatar” — as a “big swinging [expletive] at the cracker factory,” and alluded to Barstool’s business and technological shortcomings, all of which would presumably be fixed soon. “When you’re a young comedian in the ’80s,” he said, “and you graduate, right, you had to send your résumé to ‘S.N.L.’ Five years, all these little kids, all these beautiful people — there’s only going to be one place to send their résumé: Barstool Sports.”
In a blog post about the sale — which concluded with the coy signoff “PS — I’m kinda rich now” — Portnoy added something prescient: “Chernin knows about the Size 6 skinny-jean joke. They know about Babygate.” (The “Babygate” controversy stemmed from Portnoy’s speculating about the size of Tom Brady’s baby’s penis.) “They know about Al Jazeera.” (In this one, Clancy questioned the legitimacy of any news outlet with an Arabic-sounding name.) “They get it.”
The Barstool acquisition was engineered by the president of Chernin Digital, Mike Kerns. “When I got access to Barstool’s Google analytics, I knew this was something different,” he told me. “They had something like 20 percent of their visitors coming back about 20 times a day. I’ve been in this business for two decades, and all their numbers bucked the usual trends.” Portnoy kept full editorial control; Chernin’s bet was that it could serve cheap content to his loyal fan base, which would then pay for things like T-shirts, events and premium content. The brand would be scaled up into something that could be sold to advertisers, big media partners and even sports leagues. Every Barstool executive I spoke to mentioned the possibility of opening branded sports bars across the country; all of them talked about partnerships with networks. Since its acquisition, Barstool has released a raft of popular podcasts — including “Pardon My Take,” which, with downloads running up to one million per episode, is one of the biggest sports podcasts in the country. It has partnered with Facebook on a roving pregame college-football show (since canceled) and produced a widely watched baseball show that regularly features former major-league players.
This bullish transition has been helmed by Erika Nardini, a 42-year-old former marketing executive who once served as the chief marketing officer for AOL. Nardini, who grew up playing sports with her younger brother, seems uniquely qualified to deal with both the business of turning Barstool into a national brand and the inevitable public- and human-relations disasters that will arise along the way. She is also a woman, and despite its growth since the Chernin acquisition, Barstool still has to work around how bad its worst moments can get — from Portnoy’s rape jokes to posts like the one a blogger named Chris Spagnuolo wrote this summer: “Is Rihanna Going to Make Being Fat the Hot New Trend?”
The Rihanna incident highlighted how much has changed since the Chernin acquisition, but also how much has stayed more or less the same. The post was quietly taken down, and Spagnuolo was fired. But Portnoy also opined on the site that he thought the post wasn’t “as bad as many are making it out to be,” and that he was angry mostly because Spagnuolo had given “feminists” fodder to say “there goes Barstool being Barstool again.” And yet Portnoy himself cannot seem to stop personally offering up more and more of that fodder. A controversy last month, involving the terms of a contract offered to a sports personality named Elika Sadeghi, began on relatively professional footing. Within days, though, Barstool had released a seven-minute animated video in which a cartoon Portnoy says Sadeghi’s surname sounds like “the monkey from ‘The Lion King.’ ” It also portrays her hanging upside down over a boiling caldron.
I spoke to several women in sports media who have had run-ins with Barstool. All described the same pattern: They would tweet something critical of Barstool’s statements about women, which would prompt a response from Portnoy or one of his bloggers. Then came the swarm of Stoolies on social media, who would harass them with misogynist slurs and threats, often for days. Even random sports fans have been targeted. A few years ago, a Cubs fan named Missy suffered a brain injury after a fall; during her recovery, she found that she had trouble reading anything longer than a paragraph, so she moved her usual sports-media consumption over to Twitter. When she saw an article detailing the way Clancy and an army of Stoolies had responded to the Al Jazeera incident, Missy tweeted her support for the author of the article and women she felt had been abused online. Stoolies responded almost immediately, with three days of the usual misogynist epithets and vague threats. A year later, she says, after another comment critical of Barstool, a reader found photos she had posted memorializing a cousin who died of cancer — and reposted them on Twitter, tagging Barstool writers to do God knows what with them.
There’s a uniform response from Barstool employees about the worst of the Stoolies. “I hate seeing it,” Katz told me. “But it’s just a few idiots who have nothing better to do, and it sucks that people use them to smear an entire company.” The average Stoolie, Portnoy, Clancy and Markovich all argue, is not a misogynist abuser but has been painted with a broad brush by other media outlets. “I’m used to it by now,” Nardini said of the constant negative press surrounding Barstool’s attitudes toward women. “Every time anyone mentions us in the media, they’re always going to write that requisite paragraph.” She used to be part of a network of female executives, she told me, but “after they heard I was coming here, every single one of them dropped me like a bad habit.”
The wrath of the Stoolies can occasionally extend to Barstool’s own employees. “There wasn’t a single day that would go by without me seeing the N-word in the comments,” Maurice Peebles, Barstool’s first black employee, told me. Peebles ran Barstool’s Philadelphia page for three years. His administrator access allowed him to see that the racial slurs were coming mostly from a concentrated number of IP addresses, which meant that only a few readers were posting the slurs, and over time the site’s filters became better at blocking them. But he doesn’t absolve Barstool of all responsibility. “They could’ve done more about it,” he says. “None of the guys who worked at Barstool ever said anything racist to me, but I don’t know if they all understand what it’s like to see that word every day.”
Barstool’s reputation “was certainly listed as a risk,” Kerns says. “But I think time is on our side. The younger folks within agencies and brands get Barstool and recognize the world is increasingly taking itself less seriously.” Over the past year, that time seemed to have already arrived. Dunkin’ Donuts, the advertiser most associated with Boston sports, had long been wary of dealing with Portnoy, but this year, Barstool dedicated an entire month to promoting the chain’s new energy drink. Wendy’s had also expressed hesitation to partner with Barstool, but this summer the company sponsored “Barstool 5th Year,” a Snapchat channel specifically targeted at college students.
The question of whether Barstool should be held responsible for the worst behaviors of its fans reflects a fundamental question facing online media — the same one at the core of Facebook’s issues with fake news, Twitter’s with neo-Nazis and Reddit’s with various toxic communities. Unlike those companies, Barstool can’t hide behind the notion of being an open, neutral platform for the free speech of others. Its readers may come from all sorts of backgrounds, but the core Stoolies are an organic online community that grew under the caring, thoughtful hand of their very own El Presidente. Every new-media venture seeks out an “organic online community” like this — one that can, in Nardini’s words, “convert content into commerce.” That community could mean, say, subscribers of The Daily Skimm, an email for millennial women that recaps the news in a peppy, corporate voice. But it can also mean tribes of angry, disaffected young men who gather online to find shelter from the floodwaters of political correctness. This leaves companies like ESPN with a discomforting dilemma. Should they try to create their own communities — an almost impossible enterprise, especially with young audiences who have grown up on completely independent, unfiltered personalities on YouTube and social media? Or should they co-opt, sanitize and scale audiences like the Stoolies?
There are two distinct visions of how Barstool could work at the scale Nardini and Chernin envision. The first would involve running back into the understanding embrace of the Stoolies and building an uncouth, unapologetic brand aimed exclusively at boorish young men. Last August, Barstool purchased Old Row, a site that posts frat-boy fight videos and photos of college girls in bikinis and sells T-shirts celebrating the Trump presidency. This month, Barstool announced that it had bought Rough N Rowdy Brawl, an amateur boxing company from West Virginia that features untrained locals knocking one another out. In an “emergency press conference” announcing the acquisition, Portnoy thanked Ponder, saying the ESPN controversy had led to “the biggest couple weeks we’ve ever had.” “It does not matter if you like us, hate us, whatever,” he said. “We speak directly to our own consumers.”
The other road is to take the popular material that has been built since the Chernin acquisition and take another crack at entering media’s mainstream. I have friends and relatives — the majority of whom would be considered progressive, many of whom are not white — who read Barstool regularly, like its videos on Instagram and listen to “Pardon My Take.” Some are vaguely aware that Portnoy has said disturbing things about women, but they shrug it off in the same way they shrug off the cloud of bad news that continually engulfs the N.F.L. The vast majority of the Barstool content they consume ticks between standard-fare aggregation (funny videos, memes, weird stories from Florida) and genuinely enjoyable content aimed directly at men who, like me, grew up watching sports and went to colleges where we watched sports with our sports-watching friends.
During the N.H.L. finals in June, I went to the Barstool offices to watch a recording of “Pardon My Take.” Katz, who is not as fat as he claims to be on air, sat in a La-Z-Boy, idly watching hockey and scribbling notes. His co-host, who goes by the pseudonym PFT Commenter, tried out jokes about handshake lines and the superiority of the N.H.L. to the N.B.A. When the game ended, they settled on a list of segments and piled into a small recording studio, completely bare except for poorly stapled acoustic tiles and posters of Chris Berman and Lenny Dykstra.
They rattled through the show without second takes or pauses, the jokes and banter falling into a familiar, rapid rhythm. Katz is the straight man; he is mostly playing himself, an affable dude who loves his Chicago sports and could easily slide into the chair of any ESPN opinion show. PFT Commenter, who has shoulder-length hair and wears Hawaiian shirts, has created a type of character that has never really been seen in sports media — a gag version of a commenter on the well-trafficked N.F.L. blog Pro Football Talk, his tweets and columns filled with the spelling errors, prejudices and leaps of logic that plague all open forums about sports. In 2015, covering the early part of the presidential campaign, in character, for SB Nation, he would pound airplane bottles of Fireball whiskey and walk straight into scrums of reporters; outside a Republican debate in Cleveland, he held up a sign behind Chris Matthews that read, “Is Joe Flacco a ELITE Quaterback?”
Almost everything about “Pardon My Take” is a densely referential sports-fan in-joke. Even the title plays off two ESPN talk shows, “Pardon the Interruption” and “First Take.” If you’ve never watched Chris Berman run through a highlight reel or admired the sports-yelling talents of Stephen A. Smith, Katz and Commenter might as well be speaking a foreign language. But most sports fans have watched hundreds of hours of ESPN programming, absorbing all the tics, clichés and motifs that Katz and Commenter have quilted together into a pitch-perfect satirical pidgin. One of its catchiest elements derives from the N.F.L.-coach habit of explaining some bit of masculine bluster by saying “I’m a football guy” — in my time at Barstool, at least 70 percent of conversations seemed to include some deadpan variation on “I’m a huge [something] guy.” This entertaining mix has attracted an impressive list of high-profile athletes and media figures to the show. Before the Chernin deal, Portnoy had not seen the value in producing podcasts, which he admitted to me was a “big mistake”; now “Pardon My Take” is Barstool’s flagship product. Katz and Commenter were, until October, proof that Barstool could be scrubbed clean and scaled up.
During our conversations, Portnoy kept bringing up “Saturday Night Live,” mentioning it as a model for Barstool. What he meant was that he wanted to create a broad cast of characters, each capable of his or her own independent success. Barstool has hired the ESPN sideline reporter Julie Stewart-Binks; Michael Rapaport, the character actor who hosts a popular podcast; the former major-league pitcher Dallas Braden; Pat McAfee, an N.F.L. punter who retired midcareer to sign with Portnoy; and Adam Ferrone, a battle-rap champion who told me that he pestered Barstool for two years for a job. By choosing Barstool, each seems to be signing on with the gospel of Portnoy: Say what’s on your mind — and if anyone has a problem with it, fight back.
The morning after Skipper sent out the ESPN memo canceling “Van Talk,” I met Portnoy in his hoarder’s den of an office, where Tom Brady memorabilia and stacks of paper occupied every surface. He seemed unusually subdued. His nearly manic manner had dissipated into a fog of half-formed sound bites and what felt like sincere anxiety. He expressed regret over hurting Katz and Commenter’s television prospects, denounced ESPN’s cowardice and called out the hypocrisy of any female journalist at ESPN who had ever tweeted an edgy joke in the past. “I used to think of Barstool like a comedy club,” he said. “Just me talking to my guys. But things have definitely changed.” Then, after a pause, he seemed to have a change of heart: “ESPN thought they were going to get Barstool without Barstool. How does that even work?”
Over the days to come, Portnoy and a handful of bloggers — alongside hundreds of Stoolie volunteers — scrubbed through the social-media accounts of women at ESPN who had spoken out about them, resurfacing every comment that was even slightly off-color. (“I hate hypocrisy,” Portnoy told me — and that image, of ugly honesty triumphing over hypocrisy, probably explains Barstool’s appeal to young men better than any of its content.) A week later, Henry Lockwood, the producer of “Pardon My Take,” tweeted that Britt McHenry had “cankles,” leading to another spat. It was as if Barstool was doubling down on being more Barstool than ever, even though ESPN wasn’t the only partner that had been scared off: Portnoy told me another network had backed away from a deal, and that some advertisers had expressed concern.
We talked about something that happened a few hours before ESPN’s announcement, while Portnoy was recording one of his daily pizza reviews — a Barstool programming staple in which Portnoy tries to review every pizza joint in Manhattan. That day, his guest was Jake Paul, the 20-year-old YouTube heel who might be the only person on the internet better than Portnoy at turning hate and controversy into merchandising opportunities. “People know I’m a Jake Paul guy,” Portnoy said. “I respect people who take over the internet, and this guy has got maybe more haters than I do, which I also love.” He ventured that “if you put Team 10” — the name of Paul’s company — “with the Stoolies, I think we can bring down, like, the entire country.”
He was joking, but if companies like ESPN want to corral the millions of young people who have cut cable cords, turned off “SportsCenter” and flocked to unfiltered and anarchic internet personalities, they will have to reckon with Jake Pauls and Dave Portnoys. The truth about ESPN’s supposed bias will not really matter: A lot of people, like Ives the intern, believe that the Worldwide Leader in Sports no longer speaks to them. Their grievances, like those of the angry men who fume over the female cast of “Ghostbusters” or ethics in video-game journalism, will seem absurdly petty, whether they’re complaining about the rare yet somehow oppressive sight of a female sportscaster or the unbearable burden placed upon their consciences by a two-minute conversation about Colin Kaepernick. But they will voice these grievances online with enough volume and vitriol to worry even the most reasonable media executive. And if that executive doesn’t bend to their will, they will seek out someone, anyone, who feels more authentic to their experience, whatever that may mean. For huge media conglomerates, this dynamic might matter only in the margins; ESPN surely has more immediate business concerns. But gains in media right now occur only in the margins. The market inefficiencies will not be ignored.
In his office, I asked Portnoy why he thought ESPN had been interested in partnering with Barstool in the first place, given its past. A half-smile crept over his face. “You know, it’s like that Batman quote,” he said. “In a time of desperation, you turn to a man you don’t fully understand.”
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