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Barstool Sports CEO: Many media outlets 'forgot they were consumer brands'

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Many people might be surprised to learn that Barstool Sports, the popular, controversial, extremely male-oriented sports blog, has a female CEO.

Erika Nardini, a former AOL, Yahoo, and Demand Media executive, joined Barstool last July, six months after the company’s founder, Dave Portnoy, sold a majority stake to the Chernin Group. One year in to her tenure as CEO, she says she has watched the 14-year-old media brand evolve at lightning speed.

“As much as [Barstool] is a strong brand, it’s only about a one-year-old business,” Nardini tells Yahoo Finance. “When I joined, there was no office, there was no P&L, no one lived in New York. We’ve consolidated everyone … We’ve grown the company to over 80 employees.”

[Nardini is the special guest on Episode 1 of our new Sportsbook podcast on the business of football. You can listen here or scroll to the bottom of this post.]

In its latest move, Barstool announced on Wednesday that it will launch a live college gameday show on Facebook’s new Watch platform, co-hosted by Portnoy and former NFL punter Pat McAfee. “Barstool Tailgate Show” will air on Saturday evenings, from a different college football campus each week. It is a direct shot at ESPN’s widely lauded, 30-year-old “College GameDay” program. In its first week, it will even broadcast from the same campus as ESPN’s show that morning: Ohio State University. But will this experiment have real legs?

A press release says that the new show will bring Barstool’s “rabid audience to the largest social network in the world.”

Barstool’s rapid growth and ‘rabid audience’

A “rabid audience,” indeed. Barstool’s devoted readers, nicknamed “Stoolies,” don’t just read the web site; they listen to the podcasts and wear Barstool merchandise. At the NFL opener on Thursday at Gillette Stadium, Barstool will hand out 70,000 towels depicting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a clown, and its readers love the stunt.

To be sure, many see a dark side to this devotion. Last year, sports blog The Cauldron ran a long piece about how Barstool “uses social media as a weapon.” The piece included examples of Stoolies mobilizing against individuals, particularly female sportswriters, to ridicule them on Twitter. And the content on Barstool can often offend: In 2011, the site posted a naked photo of Tom Brady’s 2-year-old son; this year, a Barstool blogger wrote a post appearing to “fat-shame” Rihanna.

These, perhaps, are the “warts” Portnoy referred to when he told Fortune last year that investor Peter Chernin, “understood the brand and liked us, with all of the warts.”

Nardini, asked to expand on the “warts,” has this to say: “The thing I love about Barstool is, nothing is sacred. And what we believe is that everything should be funny. And as a result, we take some heat … comedy is in the eye, or the ear, of the beholder.”

She doesn’t want to change the site’s tone, she says: “Yes, we want more readers… We really want people who get us.”

Regardless of the controversy, Barstool’s red-hot popularity speaks for itself.

“Pardon My Take,” the three-times-a-week sports podcast hosted by Barstool personalities “Big Cat” and “PFT Commenter,” debuted in February 2016 and quickly became, for a time, the No. 1 sports podcast in America, with an average 750,000 to 1.5 million listeners per episode, according to the site. (It’s currently the No. 5 sports podcast on iTunes.) Apple included it among its Best Podcasts of 2016. The main Barstool web site sees more than 3 million visitors per month, according to Comscore. (Barstool does not share its traffic.)

Barstool Sports staffers, L-R: Dave Portnoy; Maria Ciuffo; Erika Nardini; Keith Markovich; Kevin Clancy. (Courtesy: Barstool Sports)

Nardini’s vision for Barstool as a business

In the face of all that success, a recent CNBC column trumpeted that Barstool Sports “could be the next ESPN,” as long as it can hold onto its top talent.

But Barstool wouldn’t want to be the next ESPN, and that’s the point.

Nardini puts it well in her summation of the changing sports media landscape. “If you look at 18- to 49-year-old men, and particularly 18- to 34-year-old men,” she says, “They don’t want the guy in the suit behind the desk, telling them something six hours from now that they already know. And that is rattling. To many businesses. And rattling to the leagues, because they can’t control what goes out.”

The “guy in the suit behind the desk” is ESPN, arguably, and a host of other traditional sports outlets. And the analogy can apply not just to TV networks, but to many digital outlets, which may not have guys in suits but do cover news in a more traditional, safe manner.

Barstool is anything but traditional, in terms of platform and polish: it’s a website, a radio show, a library of 16 podcasts, and a series of web shows. Its content goes up fast, rough around the edges. (A recurring joke on the Pardon My Take podcast is when a host says after some kind of verbal flub, “We’ll edit that out,” but they didn’t edit it out.)

Nardini describes the philosophy perfectly, and it’s a lesson that can apply far beyond Barstool to most sports news outlets these days. “The internet has undermined perfection, and packaging, and process,” she says. “So you don’t need to wait for SportsCenter. What happened in X game is already all over your Twitter feed, Bleacher [Report] has covered it on Instagram. Not only is the news or information out there, it’s out there in 30 seconds or less, and it’s out there plus opinion. We’re not fixated on process, or perfection.”

Barstool has also avoided any editorial layoffs, at a time when a long parade of digital media outlets, including Fox Sports, MTV.com, Vocativ, Vice, and Mic, have cut large numbers of writers and shifted to video.

Nardini says Barstool doesn’t think too much about format, and instead prioritizes getting something up — whether it’s a written post, video, or podcast episode — when there’s news. “I think people and publishers who talk about formats, instead of audiences, have lost who they are,” she says. “There are a lot of sports media brands who forgot they were consumer brands, and they’ve lost their connection with an audience.”

As Barstool embarks on a live, on-location college football show — one that will inevitably be compared directly to ESPN College GameDay — its prioritization of speed, opinion, and humor will be on full display. And its audience is likely to keep multiplying thanks to that approach, and thanks to having media industry veteran Nardini running the business.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwriteSportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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