The story behind the company that can’t be canceled.
Barstool Sports has an incredible amount of power over young people, especially young men. A sports media platform that started as a Boston paper handed out at train stops is now worth $450 million according to Forbes. Most of my friends listen to, retweet, watch, or otherwise consume Barstool content of some kind on a daily basis.
All of this is despite the fact that their founder and unquestioned leader, Dave Portnoy, is a jerk. Portnoy has the dubious honor of having a dedicated “Controversies” section on his Wikipedia page. He had to settle with the National Labor Relations Board over illegal anti-union practices. He compared Colin Kaepernick to Osama bin Laden and used the n-word. His problematic treatment of women dates back to at least 2014, when he made extremely derogatory comments about a female NFL analyst from ESPN, Sam Ponder.
While that last appeared to contribute to the rapid cancellation of ESPN’s partnership with Barstool Sports, that is perhaps the only time Barstool has ever faced a cancellation. Famously skittish Disney aside, brands such as Nike and Bud Light are happy to work with the company. Portnoy was even granted a sit-down interview with President Donald Trump this summer.
Almost every major college and university has a Barstool account of its own to share dedicated school-themed content, with many having an alternate “Chicks” account as well. Even Liberty and Brigham Young University, conservative, religious schools far-removed from the hard-partying ethos that Barstool represents, have pages dedicated to sharing posts from their student bodies.
But after a summer in which every major media institution had to, at least cosmetically, show their commitment to Black Lives Matter and the social justice movement, Barstool has emerged unchanged and as popular as before.
Anecdotally, many of the people I know and love who also enjoy at least one type of Barstool content would describe themselves as solidly liberal. Most of them are quick to point out that they too think Portnoy is a boorish clown. But neither his antics, nor his company’s unceasing controversies, have seemed to turn any of them away.
(I should point out that while Portnoy refers to himself as El Presidente or Prez, Erika Nardini has been the company’s CEO since 2016)
This got me thinking – how has Barstool weathered scandal after scandal, growing in influence the entire time? To explain this, I have to rewind a bit.
In the mid-2010s, there were a litany of Barstool-style brands proliferating across Instagram. Despite names such as Total Frat Move, 5th Year, Old Row, and I’m Shmacked, they were popular not just with college students, but with both young professionals and high schoolers as well. Their content skewed overwhelmingly male in nature, running features such as “Babe of the Day” and “Fail Friday”.
As social media platforms expanded their capabilities, so too did these pages. Videos quickly dominated their Instagram feeds. Quote tweets were wielded like weapons by their witty writers. The concept of content ownership vanished, with original authors cropped out of tweets on Instagram or attribution buried five lines deep in a caption.
These pages have since lost a lot of their clout on social media. A quick look at Total Frat Move’s homepage shows averaging a few hundred views. 5th Year and Old Row still garner thousands of likes on Instagram, but their reach is largely contained to resharing content on that platform. I’m Shmacked seems to have all but vanished, which is perhaps worth a future blog post of its own.
All of them dimished, that is, except Barstool Sports. Where others floundered, Barstool grew, and it now transcends social media. In July of 2019, Barstool was the sixth largest podcast producer in the United States, with over 6.75 million unique listeners. Way back in 2017, the site was collecting 6 million unique page views per month. The company is poised to continue to grow, with gambling giant Penn Gaming buying a stake in Barstool just as the tide of support for legal sports gambling swells nationwide.
But in my opinion, the company’s prolonged success has little to do with their content producers or apparel. Total Frat Move had funny writers. I’m Shmacked toured college campuses, putting on parties so large they bordered on festival status. The Joe Rogan podcast has subsumed the dudebro podcast audience to an unheard of degree. Yet it is Barstool that emerged victorious, whose literal flag flies in the crowd at every College Gameday broadcast, whose stickers adorn freshman minifridges around the country.
It is my theory that Barstool became more than a product or brand. It became a lifestyle.
Hardcore Barstool fans, who refer to themselves as Stoolies, travel Twitter in packs, siccing themselves on the (typically female) journalists who dare to question their posting deities at Barstool. They wear the merch I described above, probably available in your alma mater’s colors right now on Barstool’s website. The same way people once yelled WORLD STAR when fights broke out in a cafeteria, they now tag Barstool in videos of Bills mafia members smashing through a table and debate the Mount Rushmore of backup quarterbacks thanks to Pardon My Take. Saturdays Are For The Boys, which Barstool started, has lived longer than any meme has the right to.
Not all Barstool patrons subscribe to the lifestyle. In fact, the vast majority of Barstool consumers listen to Pardon My Take a few times a week and maybe repost a meme from their college’s Barstool page clowning their rival before the big Thanksgiving football showdown. But every click, stream, and share funds the Barstool empire, which in turn fuels the Stoolies and their adopted lifestyle.
In a now deleted tweet posted in response to renewed backlash toward Barstool this summer, Portnoy described himself as “uncancelable”.
At this point, he is probably correct. He and Barstool have successfully transcended the standard rules and regulations of either the Internet or the media. By becoming a lifestyle upon which to model oneself rather than a product to purchase, Barstool has insulated itself from the reckonings of social justice, or, as Portnoy puts it, cancel culture.
After all, how does cancel culture cancel an entire culture?