Perhaps the headline of this article is unfair. I didn’t just spend two hours drinking at Barstool Sports’ new global headquarters in Manhattan.
I spent two weeks watching videos, listening to podcasts, and reading posts on the website that has captured the imagination of the young-adult sports-loving American male.
You might call them bros.
Of course Dave Portnoy — who founded Barstool in 2004 as a free newspaper that he used to hand out in Boston’s financial district — understands that the internet is a place for the unfair.
His site has faced the internet’s fury plenty of times; it has been called misogynistic, crude, and plain stupid. Here’s a sample of the worst offenses:
- Babygate: That time Portnoy posted a picture of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen’s naked baby boy running on the beach and complimented the size of his genitalia. (Portnoy said it was a joke and that he did it without thinking. The post has since been taken down.)
- Al Jazeera: The time “KFC” (a Barstool guy) went to war with Al Jazeera fans on Twitter after he said couldn’t understand why people trusted the network.
- Emily Austen: Barstool ruffled feathers after it deleted an interview with Fox Sports reporter Emily Austen. She had said a bunch of racist stuff, and, to be fair, the guys did look visibly disturbed.
But it has also been called hilarious — and that’s the point.
“We mean this to be a comedy brand,” Portnoy tells me in one of the immaculate conference rooms at the new office.
It’s not just any comedy brand. It’s a new kind of comedy brand in the age of social media where communication is constant and a comedian has access to an audience at all times. Portnoy sees his site as an online “Saturday Night Live,” a cast of characters he’s assembled to serve his audience. They are known as “Stoolies.”
Stoolies like sports. They like sports betting. They like jokes about buying ghosts on Craigslist and joining pirate gangs. They hate the NFL. They love Chipotle. They do not like political correctness. They like looking at attractive women, whom they feature on “smokeshows.”
They like trolling Martin Shkreli, and they like posting emails from a guy named Zonker who totally hates them. They like black lights, and blacking out, and moving the frat party onto the internet where it need never end.
They’re either total geniuses or total idiots.
What I present below is something of an argument for both.
Portnoy founded the company 12 years ago because, he says, he hated his job and wanted to tell jokes. Financial success — in the form of a 51% buyout from media investor Peter Chernin at the beginning of this year — was unexpected despite the site’s popularity. In the last 5 year the site has grown from 1.4 million unique readers to 8 million as of January.
Already the sale has brought with it some big changes: The boys who all once worked from their respective cities are moving to a shiny new office in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, and the staff has been doubled, to 27 employees, to boost video and podcasting.
The company also has a grown-up at the helm — a female CEO named Erika Nardini. She’s a longtime media executive whose résumé includes chief marketing officer of AOL and stints at Microsoft and Yahoo.
Now what’s really interesting about what Barstool is doing with this new office is that it actually serves as a set piece. It’s a stage, which is why it’s so important that Portnoy’s hires be natural characters.
“We wired this office and everything is on camera — 24/7 they’re rolling. That story is what we’re trying to get out,” he says.
The boys have their trepidations about this new performance. On his podcast, “The Caleb Pressley Show,” former UNC football “Supervisor of Morale” Caleb Pressley (one of the boys) and Handsome Hank, the producer of Barstool’s new podcast, “Pardon My Take,” both admitted that things could get awkward and “cliquey.”
And indeed they already have. When the boys moved to New York City — which it seems most of them don’t care for — half the office got invited to see Kanye West perform from a private box; half did not.
“It was like a real source of tension, and it became a storyline for two days, but that was real and uncomfortable,” Big Cat, one of the hosts of “Pardon My Take,” explained.
But no matter. The cameras are rolling.
In true Barstool fashion, the sale was communicated directly to the Stoolies by El Presidente, Portnoy’s pen name, in an “emergency press conference.”
In a video in which he is surrounded by three of his most loyal lieutenants — a shirtless Big Cat, Kmarko, and KFC — Portnoy calmly explained to his readers that Chernin understood Barstool’s humour.
“Chernin knows about the Size 6 skinny-jean joke. They know about Babygate. They know about Al Jazeera. They get it,” he assured his Stoolies, listing a few of the site’s various capers. He wanted to convey that the sale is not a form of selling out. Barstool’s voice would remain, and Barstool would get bigger.
“But we needed help,” he says. “We had a lot of fails. We have very smart people that are going to help us succeed … When you were a young comedian in the ’80s and you graduate, you had to send your resume to ‘SNL’ … in five years… there’s only going to be one place to send the résumé, and that’s Barstool Sports.”
One of those smart people is Nardini of course.
“I’ve worn Barstool T-shirts for 10 years,” she tells me. “The writing is very smart and they get very little credit for it, so the discovery and the knowledge of that it’s smart is part of the joy of Barstool. Also, they’re brutally honest. And then just personally, I’m scrappy, I’m super hungry and I want to win.”
The Stoolies were told of her hiring during another Barstool Times Square announcement. The company prides itself on transparency, and in this instance it was also able to relish in telling the kind of joke Barstool specialises in — a joke in which Barstool is at once the comic and the punch line.
“This is a man’s city. We needed somebody with big-arse balls,” Portnoy says in the video. “We have found our CEO, our boss, our masculine boy.” And then Nardini appears and ultimately leads the boys off the set.
Portnoy tells us that he loves trolling his viewers, and that video was made for his comments section, which he says he hates but won’t get rid of.
“People blend our comment section with us,” he says. “We hate these people! Tell me what our employees say. It’s never anything we say — it’s always these idiots in the comments section. They drive me insane.”
That said, it is Barstool’s ethos to welcome people saying whatever absurd thing that comes to mind. That has made it all the more crucial that, in the new office and with new corporate bosses, Nardini has become the Wendy to Portnoy’s Peter Pan. Precious few processes were developed within Barstool’s Never Never Land over the past decade.
Employees, for example, used their Gmail, not their work email, for communication. Being spread around the country meant the guys hadn’t shared space with one another. In one of her first orders of business, Nardini suggested they have an off-site.
“They said, ‘What’s an off-site?'” Nardini recalled.
‘Literally in flames’
Barstool really found its footing in 2010 and 2011. In 2010 it threw a college concert tour called Stoolapalooza that left UMass Amherst “literally in flames” (Portnoy’s words). Then 2011 was the year of Barstool’s first Blackout Party at Clemson. Yes, it involved loud music, tons of booze, and black lights.
It was also the year Barstool hired a self-described “degenerate gambler”* named Big Cat who ultimately quit his job in Chicago so that he could stand in the middle of Times Square in the freezing cold without a shirt on. He now has a massive following and hosts Barstool’s “Pardon My Take” with fellow Barstooler PFT Commenter. It was a natural fit.
“I always enjoyed writing. I always enjoyed f—ing around and doing the things that we do. That’s probably the reason we’re successful,” Big Cat tells me. “We’re just doing what we like to do. A lot of the stuff we do is stuff I was doing in college, chasing ghosts and s— like that. But now we turned it up and it’s a living. Who we are is pretty true to who we were before Barstool and the blog world.”
Who they are is a bunch of guys who got arrested after handcuffing themselves to one another at the NFL headquarters and demanded to speak with Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner. They killed a goldfish named Larry one day and now use his replacement, Larry 2, to pick bets on game day. (You can watch it here, but be warned: PFT Commenter barfs).
They started a now massive internet meme called “Saturdays are for the boys” where guys just post themselves (or anyone, really) doing ridiculous stuff with their friends — or, in Michael Phelps’ case, with their children.
They are guys who used to hate-troll public enemy No. 1, Martin Shkreli, but now think “he’s just a very sad person who doesn’t have any friends,” Big Cat says. Now they regular-troll him.
But of course one cannot know oneself without knowing the other, so mark 2011 as important because it’s the year that the guy who owns the email address [email protected] got so tired of the deluge of emails sent incorrectly to his inbox (the correct address is [email protected]) that he started lashing out at the boys.
He goes by “Zonker,” and when he gets upset, he sends emails that provide a clear picture of what he thinks a Stoolie is. Zonker has become a character on Barstool. This is fitting, as creating characters is Portnoy’s specialty. He sees his website as a live show. And when he hires someone he turns them into legend, listing their various exploits to build their persona.
Here’s one piece, which we edited for clarity (the unedited email is embedded at the end of this article).
I have been monitoring these emails randomly for several years, and I think I finally figured out what a Stoolie is (and presumably you are one). A composite (oh look it up) of a Stoolie:
You’re that guy who passes out at the party and his friends do all sorts of humiliating and gross things to you while recording it, then you proudly post the video yourself. You whine a lot. You’re one of the dumbest sports fans in existence.
Basically you’re that loser who just can’t see what a loser they are. Even though everyone else knows. You know the type — there’s a reason you’re friends with so many.
So you’re trying to get to the right place but, unsurprisingly, you’re not competent enough to type the right email address. So I’m going to explain where you went wrong. I’ll type slowly so you can read slowly enough to understand. The address you want is [email protected]
The capitalised part (the part in bigger letters) is very important. You left it out in your first email, and now you are subject to ridicule (oh hell, you’re probably totally desensitised to it by now), and god only knows what will be done with YOUR EMAIL address.
So yes, in 2011 Barstool got a solid hater. And when you have solid haters, you know you’re doing something right.
Here’s Zonker’s letter in full:
*Some betting advice from Big Cat that he imparted to Hank: “The only way to get out of a hole, Hank, is more overs.”
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