Barstool Sports CEO on building the d-to-c media brand of the future

On the Ad Lib podcast, Erika Nardini discusses the defiantly on-brand media company that leans into sports and sports culture

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Erika Nardini
Erika Nardini Credit: Max Sternlicht/Ad Age

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It seems like every story about Barstool Sports includes some kind of caveat that the media brand is not for everyone. Barstool Sports knows it's not for everyone. And it remains, defiantly, not for everyone.

First and foremost a publisher of 25 podcasts, radio shows, and online videos and articles about sports and sports culture, Barstool Sports has robust commerce and pay-per-view events businesses to feed its rabidly dedicated fanbase, known as Stoolies.

In a given month it sees north of 30 million podcast downloads, 6 to 9 million uniques online and "hundreds of millions of video views," according to CEO Erika Nardini, who spoke with Ad Age on this episode of the Ad Lib podcast. She estimates Barstool Sports posts 200 pieces of content a day.

"Barstool Sports is a lot of things. There's a connotation that we're a sports media brand, and in some ways we are," says Nardini. "But in a lot of ways, we are a lifestyle brand. We're a collection of influencers. We're an entertainment brand. We're a pop culture brand."

Earlier this month it launched Barstool Gold, a membership tier that netted more than 10,000 paid subscribers in the two days after it launched, according to Digiday.

All of this despite — or perhaps because of — a habit of courting controversy. The company's founder, Dave Portnoy, and its various podcasts have indulged in language and behavior that can only be described as juvenile at best or full-blown misogynistic at worst.

Nardini is often called on to defend the brand in public, and does so again here today.

"The perception of Barstool's controversy and Barstool being a sexist company mostly comes from people who are not intimately familiar and [don't] read Barstool on a daily, weekly, monthly basis," she says. "Barstool has evolved and changed a lot in the last two-and-a-half, three years. I would argue that we're less brash than people think. Yes, there are takes that people don't agree with, that people think are right up at the tiptoe of the line."

But, wherever readers land on the debate over Barstool's tone, Nardini says the brand knows what it is —and knows what its audience wants—which makes it poised for success as a media company in 2019, especially as more and more outlets look for direct-to-consumer approaches to making money.

"It's extremely hard to get someone to care about you enough to wear your t-shirt or give you their credit card," she says. And Barstool has gotten quite good at it. Commerce now makes up half of the company's revenue.

Barstool has seen notable success with its Rough N' Rowdy amateur boxing franchise, which it streams online on a pay-per-view basis. Tens of thousands of Stoolies have bought pay-per-view packages for each of the six Rough N' Rowdy events so far, just to watch regular shmoes beat the living hell out of each other. (Again, Barstool isn't everyone's cup of tea.)

It's bringing its seventh brawl to Atlanta next month to air the Friday before Super Bowl LIII. Pay-per-view streams start at $15.99 ($19.99 on the day of the game).

"When I look at media companies that are sanitized or incredibly conservative in what they create, what they say, how they say it, those are the brands that are not going to make it from an advertising business into a d-to-c business," she says.

"Most media companies are built off of an ad model, and only an ad model, and as a result they have had to choose their content carefully and have also made a disproportionate amount of their content be branded entertainment or made for an advertiser. Those two things are almost opposed to creative consumer love or affinity."

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