Less than a week after the late-night show premiered to underwhelming ratings and employees bristled about having to associate with a brand many viewed as a haven for meatheaded misogyny, ESPN has Scaramucci'ed "Barstool Van Talk."
ESPN president John Skipper on Monday announced that he had yanked the show from the ESPN2 roster. "Effective immediately, I am cancelling 'Barstool Van Talk,'" Skipper said in a statement. "While we had approval on the content of the show, I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content. Apart from this decision, we appreciate the efforts of Big Cat [aka Dan Katz] and PFT Commenter. They delivered the show they promised."
Katz and the pseudonymous PFT Commenter host the popular Barstool podcast "Pardon My Take."
The decision to end the show after a single episode came after Sam Ponder, the host of ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown," called out Barstool Sports for a knuckle-draggingly sexist 2014 post co-written by site founder and president Dave Portnoy. In one characteristic aside, Portnoy and blogger John Feitelberg suggested Ponder was "a chick that has a job where the #1 requirement is you make men hard."
After Ponder welcomed Katz to ESPN with a series of tweets that included screen grabs of the offending blog post, a 2014 recording in which Portnoy went off on a piggish tirade about the anchor resurfaced. In keeping with the frat-boy ethos that informs Barstool, Portnoy informs an absent Ponder that her on-air position calls for her to "sex it up and be slutty and not be some prude fucking jerk who everybody hates." While Katz chuckles in the background as his boss continues to fulminate about Ponder and her family (at the time the recording was made, her husband Christian Ponder was the Minnesota Vikings' backup quarterback), he never actually says anything untoward about the broadcaster.
The lone episode of "Barstool Van Talk" was more in keeping with the loopy humor Katz and PFTC traffic in on "Pardon My Take" and their social media accounts. A typical joke arrives during the "Guy-Lights" NFL recap segment, in which the co-hosts goof on Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald, a Harvard alum who "uses the Pythagorean theorem to find the pylon" at the corner of the end zone.
Later in the episode, "SportsCenter" anchor Scott Van Pelt visited the Barstool van to talk up the evolution of ESPN's content strategy and the run of bad beats he's been contending with in his weekly NFL picks.
The one-and-done "Barstool Van Talk" didn't exactly light up the Nielsen dials -- in its Tuesday 1 a.m. EDT slot, the half-hour show averaged 88,000 total viewers, of whom 60 percent, or 53,000 viewers, were members of the hard-to-reach males 18-to-49 demo. Given the wee-small-hours placement on ESPN's sidecar channel, "Van Talk" was designed less as a vehicle to draw big linear TV ratings than a means to develop bits and bytes of viral video that would, in the best of all possible worlds, serve to help the cable giant reach those younger sports fans who have cut the cord on pay-TV.
The two "Barstool Van Talk" co-hosts on Monday said they were "very disappointed" to hear that the show had been canceled, adding that they "had a great time working on the show and were extremely excited about the future." Katz and and PFTC signed off on their message with a faux-philosophical take: "Success isn't owned, it's leased. And rent is due every day."
Shortly after ESPN announced it had pulled the plug on the Barstool show, a less magnanimous Portnoy hopped on Periscope and Facebook Live to hold an "emergency press conference" to discuss the day's events. Ponder said that it was his understanding that a small number of disgruntled ESPN employees had put the heat on Skipper and other top execs to sever ties with the upstart brand.
"Sam Ponder, I'm not even really mad about her tweet," Portnoy said. "She accomplished what she wanted to get accomplished. She got the show cancelled. From what we heard, there was a mini-uprising."
Portnoy went on to issue a non-apology to Ponder ("Like, three years ago, I guess I called Sam Ponder a word that in hindsight I wish I took back so this didn't happen. But I don't take back the rift. I don't take back any of it.") before boasting, "ESPN needed us more than we needed them."
Toward the end of Portnoy's address, a producer fielding questions from Barstool fans asked the site founder if die-hards should now "boycott ESPN." Portnoy responded by suggesting that the millennial horse had left the ratings barn long ago: "I mean, they're already not watching ESPN anyways. … They're not watching [ESPN], they're watching us."
ESPN closed out the third quarter with an average nightly draw of 1.41 million viewers, making it the fifth most-watched cable network during the period. With an estimated base of 87.5 million households and an average carriage fee of $7.86 per subscriber per month, the flagship channel alone is on pace to take in $8.26 billion this year -- and that's before a single dollar of ad sales revenue is factored into the equation.
In January 2016, Portnoy sold 51 percent of the company he founded in 2003 as a free newspaper to The Chernin Group in a deal that he claimed valued Barstool Sports at $10 to million $15 million. The Barstool Sports site draws north of 6 million unique visitors per month, while its official Twitter account has 942,000 followers.