(Courtesy of Barstool Sports)
NEW YORK — Rock concert promoter Bill Graham once said of the Grateful Dead, “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” It’s a saying referenced last week by Erika Nardini, the year-old Chief Executive Officer of Barstool Sports.
“You know, that’s kind of true with Barstool,” she said of the quote in relation to the brand.
What was once a free black and white Boston newspaper in 2003, Barstool Sports is now a Manhattan-based digital media company that uses comedy and satire to discuss pop culture, politics, gorgeous women, trending Internet topics and of course, sports.
“There’s so much PC police. There’s so much, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ We’re the exact opposite. … It’s TMZ almost for guys,” founder Dave Portnoy (“El Presidente”) said of Barstool in an interview with Boston.com in 2011.
Over the years, because of its unique brand positioning and voice, the site has come under criticism, like in a January 2016 piece from The Cauldron (former partners with Sports Illustrated), outlining how it believed Barstool “uses social media as a weapon.” Portnoy commented to Forbes as well about how he doesn’t view the company as a sexist entity, once a recurring talking point around the brand but a discussion that has since tapered off.
Yet, in spite of some disapproval, Barstool Sports secured an investment from media and technology firm The Chernin Group in early 2016, with Portnoy giving up majority ownership but still retaining 100 percent editorial oversight. Naturally, the investment raised eyebrows, with Sporting News questioning the news and asking what type of signal it sends in the modern digital age.
Even so, Portnoy has acknowledged that Barstool — this “rag-tag bunch,” according to Nardini — isn’t for everyone.
“This was not my cash out moment,” Portnoy wrote following the investment, which reportedly valued Barstool in the $10 million to $15 million range. “This was our best shot to literally take this thing to the moon. To swing for the fences. … Hopefully this deal makes us bigger, faster, stronger, better at everything we do.
“Chapter 1 of the book is done. Chapter 2 is about to begin. Next stop…the moon.”
Said Nardini last week about the investment: “There’s few companies who are as good or better than The Chernin Group in entertainment and media. Peter is a legend, and his team is stellar.”
The Barstool entourage spent the better part of 2016 assembling in New York, with a Manhattan office housing 70-plus employees and more than 20 interns over two floors. The site’s monthly web traffic currently resides at six million uniques while its official Twitter account has 760,000 followers and Instagram is on par with the Chicago Bulls, New England Patriots and A.C. Milan (~ 2.2 million monthly actives, per Instagram).
Phrases like By the common man, for the common man, One bite, everyone knows the rules, Own the moon and Saturdays are for the boys (more on #SAFTB later) have become molded into the Barstool brand, ones that Stoolies chant from their rooftops, college fraternity parties and poolside debauchery.
On its face, Barstool is on an upward trajectory, and has been for quite a bit of time, but the question still remains — can it stretch beyond its fanatical audience and become a nationally-recognized name?
After nearly 20 years of working with companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL, Erika Nardini traded traditional structure and corporate attire for sneakers, creativity and the ability to affect change on a nimble group. She was employee No. 17 and admittedly, the closet individual to a walking, talking suit at Barstool.
With Portnoy having 100 percent control over editorial, Nardini came in to oversee the entire business side of Barstool. On day one, she developed the brand’s first P&L, and from there, has created a snowball movement over the last 370 days since her hire.
Nardini explained that she’s interested in a diverse revenue stack underneath the Barstool Sports umbrella compared to one solely dependent on advertising, a strategy she referred to as a “drastic misstep.”
Blending content with a well-executed commerce business has been a significant area of emphasis, with merchandise growing 400 percent year-over-year, making it the fastest growing piece of Barstool while advertising commands the largest revenues. A fully stocked pseudo-merchandise shop even lives on the second floor of Barstool’s offices.
Nardini equated the success with branded gear — whether it’s taglines like Saturdays are for the boys or They hate us cause they ain’t us — to the company’s ability to be “opportunistic.”
“Barstool is a quick company, and I think that’s one of our single greatest advantages,” Nardini said. “In general, we’re quick on trends, we’re quick on what’s happening on the Internet, we’re quick on conversations. We’re witty and sharp but also when something starts to percolate, we know to make it into a blog. … It can then manifest itself into gear.
“What I love about Barstool Sports is we’re a really powerful combination of content that creates a conversation that has a commerce experience, which is as good as the content and as good as the conversation. That’s what our bloggers are really good at.”
Licensing partnerships and a premium website subscription – for Stoolies looking for exclusive content — are new revenue streams Nardini is currently exploring as well.
Three months ago, Barstool experimented with its first online pay-per-view offering, a West Virginia amateur boxing tournament that saw 12,500 fans pay $5 a piece to see locals duke it out over a two-day stretch. It was certainly a modest turnout but an early sign that Stoolies would support premium programming.
Brands such as DraftKings, SeatGeek and AB InBev were embedded within Barstool even prior to Nardini hopping aboard and over the past year, blue-chip corporate partners have been on her target list. New formal relationships with DirecTV (consumer technology) and H&R Block (finance), for example, have resulted from conversations being had over the past 12 months. They’re a far cry from Barstool’s biggest sponsor in 2003, an online card room called PartyPoker.
As Nardini explained, there’s three types of advertisers for Barstool: those who won’t partner with the brand, companies who want to be alongside the storyline and finally, some who want to be in the storyline. For the likes of Bud Light, Dunkin’ Donuts and Totino’s, all three wanted to be a fully integrated partner with Barstool.
At Super Bowl LI in Houston, Totino’s sponsored the Barstool Sports house for the week and was organically woven into the daily conversation through co-branded videos for web and social in addition to the lifestyle of each on-site employee. The way Barstool ties in companies to the brand storyline, even if at times it appears over the top, is what Portnoy calls its “secret sauce.”
“As we’ve continued to grow, we’ve always been very upfront with the advertising side of it, so I think it’s the honesty with the readership,” Portnoy said of the integrated partnerships, which the company needed to have in the early days to stay alive. “We have this fanatical fan base that wants to see us succeed, and so they get it. They get that to get the free content and all of the things we’re doing — whether it be the blog, the podcasts, whatever — we need money. We need advertising. If you want us to go hire Michael Rapaport, well guess what, we need revenue to do that. They get it.”
Added Nardini: “For the brands who do get into the storyline, the dividends are just huge. The Stoolies will do all of the heavy lifting. They do all of the work. You’ll see them posting pictures of an empty refrigerator case at the store and asking, where are the Totino’s?
“We make it fun and believe in the brands who work with us. We get behind it. Stoolies get behind it. It’s just a different way to do influencer marketing.”
On June 10, 2016, from a rustic Newport, Rhode Island bar, Barstool blogger John Feitelberg sat next to a curmudgeon sailor who barked out the phrase, Fridays are for the men. Saturdays are for the boys. Minutes later, at 11:10pm EST, Feitelberg Tweeted the 10-word slogan, thinking nothing of the phrase and heading to bed. Yet, in the morning, he woke to hundreds of Retweets.
Out of 140 characters in a single Tweet, Saturdays are for the boys was born.
Portnoy elaborated that throughout the years at Barstool, something happens every 12 months that no one can predict such as the Patriots overcoming a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit for the franchise’s fifth title since 2002 or the Deflategate saga. Boston professional sports teams have won 10 championships over the past 15 years while four of Barstool’s finest were arrested during an NFL office sit-in two years ago. While none of it was scripted, Barstool Sports capitalized on the events, either through content, advertising dollars or merchandise. And yes, the brand even cashed in on a simple viral Tweet that kick-started a newfound love for the first day of the weekend.
“Almost like clockwork, things happen that we’re able to take beyond Barstool and make into a bigger brand. … We’ve never seen anything like Saturdays are for the boys. It’s wild,” Portnoy said.
Added Nardini: “It became an anthem that now has a life of its own.”
It’s undoubtedly the most powerful tagline around the Barstool brand. Each Saturday, regardless of the season, #SaturdaysAreForTheBoys and #SAFTB are trending hashtags on Twitter, with both men and women paying homage to the weekly celebration through various shenanigans, beer chugging and alcohol-induced tomfoolery. Still, not all #SAFTB celebrations include alcohol, as witnessed by eighth graders from Madison, Connecticut taking part in their graduation while holding a Barstool flag and sporting some branded gear.
Athletes from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt to 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps and New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard have all participated in the cult following of #SAFTB. NBA teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers have entered the Saturday conversation on social while those outside of sports — such as the original Most Interesting Man the the World — have joined the party as well.
This summer, Barstool has a Saturdays are for the boys beach house to continue the year-old trademarked motto. Nardini explained that not only is #SAFTB a “conversational brand, but a physical brand,” which has stretched from not only content around editorial, video and social but merchandise, too. It’s fused into the Barstool DNA and has become synonymous with Saturdays year-round.
“That’s what so powerful about Barstool,” said Nardini about the Stoolies backing the brand’s rallying cry. “When we get behind something, whether it’s Dunkin’ Donuts launching a new drink or Fire Goodell or Saturdays are for the boys, we really get behind it. That’s what makes us so different.”
Twenty-five Barstool employees churn out, on average, 100 daily pieces of content on the blog and through video while a three-person social team generates more than 80 posts across roughly 200 Barstool accounts. More than 10 podcasts span the programming schedule for Barstool, including the No. 2 (Pardon My Take), No. 12 (I Am Rapaport) and No. 15 (Fore Play) ones in the ‘Sports and Recreation’ category in the iTunes Store. Barstool Radio on SiriusXM also dots the airwaves each day from 12 to 2 p.m. EST.
If it looks and feels like a content strategy in hyperdrive, it is, but for Nardini, part of her mandate since late last June was further stretching the Barstool brand to other social platforms and further distribution outlets.
“What I really set about doing was creating speed and momentum and let’s start to see what this brand looks like in more podcasts, on the radio, on television, on Facebook, in ‘live’, in video,” she added. “That’s what we’ve been doing over the past year.”
Podcasts have only been around since last March but, given the iTunes rankings, have caught Stoolies’ attention and those in the general sports world. Pardon My Take (PMT) — hosted by Dan Katz (“Big Cat”) and PFT Commenter (“PFT”), an Internet mystery man — has taken on a life of its own with 750,000 to 1.5 million views an episode, per Barstool. Guests like University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt, PGA Tour’s Rickie Fowler and FOX Sports personality Katie Nolan have all appeared on Pardon My Take. Big Cat and PFT, over the past two years, have taken PMT to the streets and criss-crossed the country for what seems like an annual tradition dubbed, Grit Week. The witty jokes, crude humor and not-so-serious-approach-to-life mesh with the comedic Barstool tone.
“I’m most interested in growing the Barstool brand because I think when we touch new people and hook you, we get you. You get our humor, and we bring you into this world,” Nardini said.
Barstool now is further ingrained into this online and digital world, one where Nardini wants Barstool to “be the best at ‘live’ and the best at Instagram,” saying that the social channel is “one of our biggest platforms” with 50-plus brand accounts.
“We (execute on social) similar to how we did with the blog,” she said. “We look at what’s funny and interesting on the Internet, we publish it and figure out which brand that comes from. Look, we played with Facebook and Instagram a lot last Fall. The Instagram changes have been incredible. We played a lot with Snapchat, too.”
Added Nardini: “Twitter is where we talk to Stoolies.”
When Nardini first joined Barstool, there hadn’t been any meetings with potential distribution partners or social media companies like Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat. The initial meeting with Facebook introduced Nardini and Barstool to the live product, a tool that the brand could use to build a bigger and more engaged following.
“It was game on,” she emphatically remarked about testing it. “We were going to attack Facebook Live like it was nobody’s business.
“The streams broke 40 percent of the time. We attacked (the Facebook Live) product. One of the things I love about Barstool is we break pretty much everything we touch. I like that. I think that’s a really good place to be. We’re now, I would argue, very much ahead of understanding how to make the most of a ‘live’ platform and to make it work for our audience.”
Last Fall, Barstool live streamed five times a week on Facebook, some of which included different employees watching and commentating around baseball or football games while others centered on political shows or Barstool Idol. So, when streams started gaining momentum and receiving hundreds of thousands of views, Facebook called to further engage in conversations about how to potentially collaborate.
“We knew pound for pound, every post that we did or every ‘live’ that we did, we would crush anyone in our “category.” I think you’ll see a lot of interesting stuff start to happen with Facebook, Instagram and others,” Nardini said.
Currently, she’s less concerned about monetizing social and more focused on leveraging Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to grow the Barstool brand and connect with new audiences. In addition to social, Barstool just entered the documentary space last month with its inaugural title called #BillsMafia, which highlighted the outlandish and crude Buffalo Bills fan base. Since launch, the 10-minute short film has collected over seven millions views between the Barstool site and social.
“Dave always wanted to do a documentary, and that’s been one of the things that’s been really fun for me,” said Nardini, who added that Barstool will release five other documentaries before year’s end, including one on the sex scandal involving Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.
“There’s an art form I really respect in documentaries.”
For Barstool, its twist is a somewhat-serious tone, complete with narrative elements but instead, mocking the authoritative nature of traditional documentaries. Different types of documentaries and more reality shows, similar to the raw and unfiltered weekly Stool Scenes in-office show, is on tap for the future.
“We’re going to have a big Fall,” Nardini said. “I think this Fall is hopefully where you’ll see a lot of what we’ve been working towards in the last year really come to fruition. I think you’ll see us do more video, more shows. I think you’ll see us do more radio. … The Fall is really our season.”
The, ‘Oh my god, we’re here’ moment finally happened for Dave Portnoy.
Nardini called the seven-day stretch starting on January 30 “one of the most electric weeks of my career, if not the most electric week.”
“It was a really big arrival moment for us,” she added. “It was a validating moment for us, for these guys and for Stoolies as well.”
In Houston, Barstool Sports hit the big screen around Super Bowl LI, making four ‘live’ late-night appearances on Comedy Central with its Rundown show of Portnoy, “Big Cat” and Kevin Clancy (“KFC”).
Months later, Nardini reflected and candidly said that when Barstool arrived that week on Saturday, “No crew wanted to work on the Barstool Sports show. They were tied up with FOX shows and ESPN shows. We had a rough crew. We had a great production company in Embassy Row and then beyond that, it was Bad News Bears.”
Besides the less than impressive crew, the lights, set, technology and overall production had noticeable issues. Consequently, when the first rehearsal on Sunday was a disaster — just 24 hours before the brand’s first foray into linear — she picked up the phone and called The Chernin Group, maybe for the last time.
“We shot that practice show for five and a half hours, and I literally called the Chernin guys and told them, ‘I think tomorrow may be my last day here. Sorry.’ And then we got to Monday and pulled it off,” said Nardini, who added that Barstool had the No. 1 worldwide trending hashtag on Twitter at various instances during the week.
Despite it being Barstool’s initial entry into television, Barstool viewership for its Rundown show generated worthwhile buzz, topping out at 310,000 viewers on its first night while capturing 30 percent of households in Massachusetts, according to Nardini. When compared against the previous week’s programming in the same time slot, Barstool had modest viewership at best. At the outdoor set, though, Stoolies flocked to the show and lined up close to 10 deep in certain pockets.
With a partner like Comedy Central, Nardini said that Barstool could maintain its brand identity and voice without having to adjust how it talked about football and sports. That week, it also hired former Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee in a pseudo-retirement press conference and also grabbed headlines as the company was banned from Super Bowl Media Day along with radio row. In typical Barstool fashion, PFT Commenter weaseled his way into the party in spite of the axe from Commissioner Roger Goodell and company.
Portnoy and Nardini both echoed each other’s comments, saying it was a “validating” week and experience. After the success of Comedy Central, and given where Barstool is positioned across digital, social and the web, television would be the next step.
Multiple sources have told Forbes that in 2017, Barstool has been shopping around a late-night show, with conversations including at least FOX Sports. Sources didn’t know if the discussions are still active or if they’ve died off for now.
When asked about where the brand conversation currently stood for linear, Nardini declined to comment but did say, “We’re interested in having a linear show. I think a question for us is which one of our brands should be a linear show.
“We have a ton of aspiration around radio, social and on television. I think you’ll see us explore all three of those things going forward.”
Portnoy said that for Barstool Sports, this is the year the brand is “poised finally to start doing some major distribution and major content relationships,” deals that, according to him, will hopefully be in place within the next six to 12 months. When pressed if that means regular programming on TV, Portnoy said, “That could be anywhere.”
He added: “It could be TV. It could be big social media platforms, Facebook, Snapchat. … It could be relationships with sports leagues. It could be things that, I think, two years ago or prior to Chernin would have been hard to believe.”
Since 2003, Portnoy said he has envisioned Barstool becoming a truly national brand. Pre-Chernin investment, which was 18 months ago, Portnoy had “kind of written off” that Barstool wasn’t going to be this “household name.”
How about now, though, with The Chernin Group on board, Nardini running business operations and the brand still riding a wave of momentum?
“Maybe we are,” Portnoy tells me in a cautiously optimistic tone from his corner office in Manhattan. “Maybe we are going to be getting to that point. The growth since Chernin and since we’ve all been here, not to use a Deflategate term, but more probable than not. That’s how I feel and how we’re going.
“People are starting to put bets on us who weren’t in the past. … We have a legitimate chance to get to where we want to be.”
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkJBurns88. He can be reached at email@example.com.