Are Barstool Sports and ESPN a Good Fit For Each Other?

To say that the inside of a sports media office is similar to the inside of a locker room would be a fair comparison. The language among colleagues can be colorful, egos get easily bruised, competitive juices are constantly flowing, clicks get formed behind the scenes, and if you operate in a place where other brands exist that don’t create sports programming, you may receive a few nasty looks, hear a couple of whispers and maybe even earn a call from the HR department. Inside these operations there are a lot of locker room programmers who question the company’s programming choices and feel they deserve to be consulted before anything gets added to their employer’s airwaves.

It’s one thing when individuals become jealous of each other over timeslots and paychecks or if passionate people debate and argue about various sports opinions, but the one line that should never be crossed is getting personal. The second you explore that territory, future conversations and relationships are terminated. Depending on your words and the people involved, it can even lead to physical assault. As important as sports, money, and an individual’s career might be, when you attack someone on a personal level, it rarely ends well.

On Monday night I saw Sam Ponder’s tweets about Barstool Sports and came away with the opinion that most people had, she wasn’t a fan of ESPN (her employer) adding Barstool’s personalities to the network’s programming schedule. Some questioned why the network allowed Ponder to criticize their newest partner when they’ve taken others like Bill Simmons and Tony Kornheiser to task for comments made about other network shows and anchors. To many on the outside, it seemed once again to be a case of double standards and inconsistency.

As I processed Ponder’s criticisms I wondered why she was so worked up over a few distasteful tweets from the past, especially over a weekly show that was set to air on the network at 1am ET on a Tuesday night. Once I dug in deeper though, I began to understand why.

I’ll be the first to admit, I was late to the Barstool party. When the brand first began to pick up steam a few years ago it seemed like a product built for the college crowd. Given that I was in my late-30’s at the time, I wasn’t their target audience. The content appeared to be a mixture of funny, juvenile, mindless, tasteless, and offensive, but clearly it had connected with the younger demographic.

In recent years, the company has maintained its original attitude while adding better programming. Along the way, they’ve created a major impact in the social space, becoming a great study for media brands when trying to understand social engagement. They’ve also dominated the iTunes charts with the “Pardon My Take” podcast, a program which is highly entertaining and features exceptional chemistry between Big Cat and PFT Commenter, plus the company has hired other opinionated and colorful personalities such as Dallas Braden, Michael Rappaport, and Pat McAfee. Not everything Barstool does is classy or tasteful but their batting average has been much better than it was a few years ago.

However, when you rewind back to 2014 and take a listen to the rant Dave Portnoy and Dan “Big Cat” Katz went on about Sam Ponder, it’s understandable why someone like Ponder would have a long memory and take issue with ESPN giving Barstool a larger platform. What Katz and Portnoy said about Ponder is indefensible, slanderous, and offensive and there’s no way to justify to any individual inside ESPN (who isn’t a fan of Barstool) why this is a good business decision if those type of personal attacks are going to be permitted, even if the content originates on another platform. That doesn’t mean Barstool’s staff isn’t entitled to feel or express those views, but by doing so, it can jeopardize their ability to extend professional relationships with companies like ESPN.

To ESPN’s credit, their management released a statement denouncing Barstool’s previous rant. ESPN EVP of programming Burke Magnus stated, “The comments about Sam Ponder were offensive and inappropriate, and we understand her reaction. She is a valued colleague and doing a great job for us. As stated previously, we do not control the content of Barstool Sports. We are doing a show with Big Cat and PFT, and we do have final say on the content of that show.

But that begs another question, why would ESPN work with a group that allows and encourages taking aim at its employees?

Whether you’re a fan of Ponder or not, she was elevated to replace Chris Berman on Sunday NFL Countdown so clearly the network values her contributions. The company also received complaints from other personalities who were turned off by the rumored partnership and still decided it was a worthwhile endeavor. Ponder doesn’t have a voice in the company’s programming decisions, nor should she, but ESPN should be taking into consideration the feelings of their employees before entering into business with groups who create an immediate divide in the locker room.

Ask yourself this, would you invite someone into your home who punched your father in the face and called your mother a whore? Would you give access to your bank account to someone with a history of stealing money? Would a team sign a player with a history of sharing personal and private information about coaches and teammates? That’s essentially what ESPN did in this case as seen thru the eyes of professionals like Ponder and others. To expect her or other colleagues with similar feelings to stay silent would be foolish.

I can’t fault anyone at ESPN who considers it painful, embarrassing, and confusing for their employer to team up with a company that has taken aim at them on a personal level, but let’s also be clear about one key thing – not everyone inside ESPN has a problem with Barstool. Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo have shown themselves to be fans of the brand, inviting members of the company to join them on radio and television, and new addition Katie Nolan has appeared on the brand’s programming as well.

Although I can understand Ponder’s disappointment and frustration with ESPN entering into business with Barstool, there’s a reason for it. Dave Portnoy and Erika Nardini have done a tremendous job growing Barstool Sports. It may not be your cup of tea but if you don’t think Barstool has seized an opening in the sports media landscape then you haven’t been paying attention. Some consider it low-brow entertainment but usually those who feel that way are mature fans above the age of 40. Like it or not, Barstool has tapped into the younger generation of sports fans in a deeper way than even ESPN has, similar to how Donald Trump has struck a nerve with supporters and critics alike. Keep in mind, they’ve created their success without full fledged support from radio, (SiriusXM eventually signed on) television, and print.

The interesting part of this conversation is whether or not Barstool is ready to become a bigger mainstream act. To do so, they’ll likely have to modify the type of content they’ve created which hardcore fans will deem “selling out”. But to secure bigger partnerships with brands like ESPN, FOX Sports, the NFL, MLB or major advertisers, it’s going to be nearly impossible to do that when personal shots are taken at others who you’re entering into business with.

Do you think ESPN is going to advance its relationship with the Barstool brand if that type of behavior continues? How do you think those high level conversations will go if the targets become Mike Greenberg, Stephen A. Smith or Michelle Beadle? Better yet, what if Bob Iger, John Skipper or Connor Schell were viciously attacked verbally the way Samantha Ponder was by Barstool? If you think Roger Goodell, Adam Silver or Rob Manfred are going to sign off on allowing NFL, NBA or MLB brands to align with a company that personally attacks them, guess again.

I understand that Barstool’s platform is independent of ESPN, and the network has no control over what happens on it, but it does have the final say in who it chooses to work with and feature on its radio and television stations and websites and social media platforms. Would The Undefeated hire and promote a writer who has an independent website and racist agenda? Hell no. Nor would it be wise of the company to ask their other employees to accept someone as a partner who represents the opposite of their personal and professional values.

This story will be fascinating to follow because Barstool has built its identity by being aggressive, unfiltered, unapologetic and sophomoric and that strategy has worked to perfection. Say what you want about Dave Portnoy’s approach, but he’s created real, edgy, funny, disturbing and emotionally moving content that dedicated fans don’t turn away from. The reason they’ve been a hit with their audience is because of their anti-establishment persona and a willingness to fight the system and stay true to themselves. There’s no better example of that then how Portnoy responded after Ponder put the company on blast on Twitter.

It may offend some but Barstool’s formula has proven to be successful without ESPN. To reach the next level though, where both parties can feel comfortable working together and advancing each other’s professional agendas, it’s going to require change. The two parties may intend to pursue marriage but divorce will follow quickly if the personal shots I heard fired in 2014 continue in 2017 and beyond, even if they’re taking place on independent platforms.

I don’t know if this is the best marriage for ESPN or Barstool, but I do understand why they need each other. Should the relationship reach the point where it gets extended down the line, there will be a lot of internal conflict and the rumblings you heard this week from Samantha Ponder will sound like church noise compared to future conversations.

The question Bristol executives must ask themselves is, is the price of future success worth it if it means having to sell your soul? Barstool has one to answer themselves, is playing nice with corporate America aka the establishment, worth it if it means having to adjust your identity? Each company has to look in the mirror, determine if they’re happy with what they see, and prepare themselves for surgery because their appearance will be altered the second they agree to extend this business relationship.

In the meantime, for those on the outside watching it all unfold, enjoy your popcorn.

Jason Barrett :