Few media organizations have had as meteoric of a rise as Barstool Sports. After starting as a small black-and-white Boston-area paper that was produced and distributed by founder Dave Portnoy starting in 2003, Barstool has become a nationally-recognized brand due to its website, podcasts, videos and t-shirts.
The Barstool brand took another gigantic step this past Monday, as one of its original shows – a “Pardon the Interruption” meets “SportsCenter” type of show called the Rundown – made its television debut live from Houston, Texas on Comedy Central at midnight as part of a lead-up to Super Bowl LI. The Rundown, featuring Portnoy, Kevin “KFC” Clancy and Dan “Big Cat” Katz, focuses on topics ranging from viral videos to Super Bowl previews and practically everything in between.
But as entertaining as the first episode of the Rundown was, that wasn’t the important part. What really mattered was the show’s initial TV rating, which would make or break not only the future of the Rundown on live TV, but define some of Barstool’s future aspirations.
The result? 310,000 viewers at midnight on a weekday. That’s pretty darn good. To put it in perspective, ESPN’s “First Take” brought in 450,000 viewers and Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed” brought in 93,000. Both of those shows air at 10 a.m. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch reported that the Rundown was Comedy Central’s top show for the male 18-to-34-year-old demographic, beating out Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” by seven percent.
To prove it wasn’t a fluke, Tuesday night’s rundown brought in 242,000 viewers. Barring something drastic, Wednesday night’s numbers will likely be similar.
Of course, to anyone that has heard of Barstool before Monday night, these numbers aren’t shocking. Barstool readers, dubbed “Stoolies,” follow Barstool much like their favorite sports team and less like the New York Times. This army of loyal followers is what drives a bulk of their web traffic, podcast downloads and t-shirt purchases. It’s not surprising they followed them to TV.
This fanbase is what makes Barstool such a hot commodity. The loyalty and devotion of these Stoolies, not to mention the fact that most are from the highly sought-after 18-to-34-year-old male demographic, is why media investor Peter Chernin purchased the company from Portnoy last year for somewhere between $10 and $15 million. Few brands relate and resonate with millennials and young adults like Barstool does.
Whether it be snarky t-shirts, witty podcasts or entertaining Facebook Live videos, Barstool has had a lot hits and very few misses in regards to content. They have a knack for producing timely and appealing T-shirts ranging from shots at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (example: their “Goodell loves ISIS” t-shirt) to their popular “Saturdays are for the boys” slogan. They have had a knack for finding, developing and sometimes acquiring talent, giving YouTube star Jenna Marbles her start, shaping their most common writers like KFC, Big Cat, Dan Feitelberg and Keith Markovich into bona-fide social media stars, and reeling in sports satirist PFT Commenter from SB Nation. Big Cat and PFT Commenter are the backbone of Barstool’s podcast network with “Pardon My Take,” a satirical sports podcast that was voted one of Apple’s 12 best podcasts of 2016. While the website and t-shirts have always been successful, Barstool has truly expanded on the podcast front under Chernin, creating a diverse podcast network ranging from hockey to fatherhood to “The Bachelor” and rivaling or exceeding The Ringer’s slew of podcasts in multiple genres.
This dominance and success in multiple areas is what has propelled Barstool into the limelight. While it continues to maintain its “by the common man, for the common man” ethos, it is growing more and more into a legitimate media company than ever before, largely due to the direction of chief executive officer Erika Nardini. Nardini has provided experience, credibility and guidance to Barstool that has helped make opportunities like airing the Rundown on Comedy Central possible, and is why I truly believe a sports media giant such as ESPN or Fox Sports will eventually make a gigantic bid for Barstool in the next decade or so in order to compensate for the loss of revenue and viewers from cord-cutters, many of which fit into Barstool’s core demographic.
While things are great now, it hasn’t always been perfect for Barstool. The site has gotten its fair share of criticism for some of its posts and its Stoolies, who have been known to bully seemingly anyone that is seen as anti-Barstool on social media. They also purchased Old Row, essentially a Southern version of Barstool, but have not done much with it other than sell merchandise. Lastly, as talent such as KFC, Big Cat or PFT Commenter become more popular, Barstool runs the risk of having them poached away for more money by a company like ESPN, Fox Sports or CBS.
Time will truly tell what happens to Barstool from here. A TV deal is not out of the question anymore after this week’s showing, and their loyal fanbase will stick with them to the end. But for now, one thing’s for sure: Barstool Sports is big time now, and it’s here to stay.