Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy's threats might boost the brand, but at what cost?
Sports media company Barstool Sports has always leaned on its defiant and polarizing nature to grow its brand, led by the example of its provocative founder Dave Portnoy, and its latest stunt is proving that its rambunctious style works on its audience. But at what cost? Experts say Barstool Sports could still be in legal trouble and, at the very least, provoke anger from the very individuals it covers, even if it doesn’t do harm to its fanbase.
In a series of tweets to his nearly 1 million followers on Tuesday, Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, threatened to fire any of his employees who seek to unionize.
The dispute began when Portnoy resurfaced a blog post he wrote in 2015 that shared his anti-union stance in response to the news that the editorial staff at sports-culture site The Ringer would unionize. Live Science staff writer Rafi Letzter and lawyer Matt Weir sent out tweets of support for Barstool employees who would like to unionize, and Portnoy shot back with threats:
“If you work for @barstoolsports and DM this man I will fire you on the spot,” reads Portnoy’s tweet referencing Letzter’s post. He made a similar threat with Weir’s tweet. If taken at face value, they’re a clear violation of U.S. labor law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 states that employers cannot “dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization.”
The Twitter firestorm that erupted next turned into the rambunctious media company’s PR dream. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted to her 5.1 million followers: “If you’re a boss tweeting firing threats to employees trying to unionize, you are likely breaking the law and can be sued.” The New York State Department of Labor and the AFL-CIO also responded. Donald Trump Jr. then fired back on Twitter, taking the side of Barstool Sports: “Picking a fight with @stoolpresidente and @barstoolsports is probably the biggest mistake @AOC has ever made on Twitter.”
Outlets from The Washington Post to Deadspin to Time covered the news and “Portnoy” became a trending topic on Twitter. Barstool Sports, which is majority owned by the Chernin Group, did as it has in the past and egged the critics on. Throughout the day, the publication and several employees leaned into they what they claimed to be a big joke, posting articles, videos and photos of what it would look like if Barstool Sports were to unionize. Employees also started a fake Barstool Sports Union @BSSUnion Twitter account, copying The Ringer’s exact statement for unionizing.
Portnoy himself also tweeted back at Ocasio-Cortez writing: “Hey @AOC welcome to thunder dome. Debate me,” and posted an image of a shirt of his face with the words “union buster.” Barstool Sports is now selling the T-shirt online for $28.
Christopher Lehmann, managing director at brand consultancy Landor, says the move won’t derail the publication’s fanbase, also known as "Stoolies," which is there not only for the sports but also for its particular form of comedy.
“Portnoy is playing with fire, but that’s the Barstool brand. It’s irksome to say it but, in many ways, Portnoy is using branding’s playbook like a passionate expert; he knows what he believes in, is uncompromising in focusing on his core audience—everyone else be damned—and he is relentlessly true to his brand’s True North,” says Lehmann. “A move like this will likely cement an already-cemented loyalty among his core audience.”
Portnoy even shot back at Ocasio-Cortez:
Ever since Portnoy’s threats, Barstool Sports has received a multitude of mentions on social media. On Tuesday, “Barstool Sports” saw its mentions increase by 269 percent with more than 30,000 mentions, while “Portnoy” spiked at 43,000 mentions, a 6,200 percent increase over the norm, according to Brandwatch data. The sentiment around “Portnoy” is 51 percent positive, showing how divisive he is.
Despite the attention, Portnoy’s threats can still land the company in legal trouble, no matter how “on-brand” the comments might be.
Matt Weir, the lawyer who Portnoy called out, told Ad Age that any person could still make a claim against the company, whether they are affected by the unlawful behavior or not. Barstool Sports could fight back by saying it’s remaining on-brand, but would still need to prove that employees “have no subjective fear of reprisal” for wanting to unionize. He added that Barstool Sports employees who might want to unionize could see this as a good opportunity to speak out. Forming unions at media companies has become a common, often necessary, thing in such a tempestuous industry. In the past few years, New York Magazine, Gawker, Vice Media, Vox Media and BuzzFeed News have all unionized in the name of workers’ rights and better working conditions.
“It’s a dangerous game,” he says. “Is the brand exposure and the impressions on a single day in August worth the possibility, however small, that employees might not be in on the joke, even if you assume they are?”
Portnoy’s comments also have the potential to alienate the very athletes the site covers, experts say. After all, every major sport Barstool Sports writes about is unionized. “Barstool’s top podcasts all have tremendous access to professional athletes. Athletes who are in unions,” says Robert Seidman, founder of sports media podcast SportsTVRatings. “I do wonder if the attention is worth it.”