Barstool Sports isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The site trades in a style of raw humor and commentary that some find offensive. The company has a shoot-from-the-lip founder whose gags having included joking about union-busting, a move that would violate federal labor laws.
But the brazen media outfit has drawn a large and loyal fanbase. And Barstool has been able to leverage that audience to expand into the burgeoning world of podcasting, which now represents a sizable and growing piece of its business. (For more on the booming podcast space, see this week’s Variety cover story, “How Conan O’Brien and Other Top Hosts Are Driving the Podcast Revolution.”)
When Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini joined the New York-based company three years ago, it was producing three podcasts. It now has more than 30 and ranks as the No. 6 largest U.S. podcast publisher with 6.75 million unique listeners in July 2019 — putting it ahead of rivals including ESPN, according to Podtrac.
“We’re able to take people who started as bloggers and wrote very funny commentary on sports and life and moved those to an audio form,” she says. “It allows for authenticity, with a very low barrier to entry.”
Upwards of 35% of Barstool’s revenue now comes from the podcast business, Nardini says. She wouldn’t share specific financial details but says the 180-employee company is “on a path toward $100 million” in overall revenue over the next year and is profitable. Barstool Sports has been majority-owned by Peter Chernin’s Chernin Group since 2016.
The Barstool lineup includes sports-talker “Pardon My Take,” the No. 1 sports podcast in the U.S. The three-times-per-week show is hosted by Barstool personalities Big Cat and PFT Commenter who, according to the company, deliver “the loudest and most correct sports takes in the history of the spoken word.”
Another top 10 podcast hit has been “Call Her Daddy,” a raunchy sex talk show hosted by female 20-something duo Alexandra Cooper and Sofia Franklyn (whom Barstool discovered on Twitter last fall). The “Call Her Daddy” hosts “have very explosively funny takes on sex and relationships,” Nardini says.
Other popular Barstool podcasts are “Fore Play” (golf), “Spittin’ Chiclets” (hockey), “Mickstape” (basketball), and “KFC Radio,” a weekly “bar conversation” that invites reader and listener contributions.
For Barstool, podcasting is a very high-margin business and far more cost-effective than TV production, Nardini says. In addition, she says, “In television, you’re working toward someone else’s definition of what’s funny or what’s allowed. With podcasts, you’re getting graded on by the fans… We control our own destiny.”
Of course, a few years ago, Barstool Sports did try to make the leap to TV in a pact with ESPN. But in October 2017, ESPN pulled the plug on “Barstool Van Talk,” a late-night comedy/interview show on ESPN2, after just a single episode aired. That came in response to offensive remarks the site’s staffers made about a female ESPN host. “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,” then-ESPN president John Skipper said at the time.
Today, Nardini says, Barstool doesn’t see upside in pursuing a television strategy. “Most digital companies are getting paid production fees to work in television, which are finite and capped. That’s versus podcasting, where the bigger a podcast becomes the more leverage we have in commanding a price [for advertising],” she says.
That said, podcasts represent intellectual property that could generate new revenue through video-series extensions, Nardini says. “Any given week, I’m talking to Amazon, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, and even Twitter about how could we take podcasts and turn that into an experience that lives on their platform,” she says.
Barstool also has a deal with SiriusXM, for which it produces 12 hours of programming per day for its own dedicated channel, and distributes its podcasts across SiriusXM’s platform. “Sirius really allowed us to grow talent and increase muscle around audio,” Nardini says.
Audio formats have been strong for Barstool in letting it connect with 18-34 audiences “in a way that’s very relatable and on the same level,” Nardini says. “The way our personalities talk about sports, news, life, dating, sex, you name it – they’re at the same level of our fans. Podcasting is a very intimate medium, the relationship is between the listener and the host.”
Other sports-media companies are upping their investment in original podcasts, too. In October, ESPN plans to launch “The ESPN Daily,” a five-times-per-week podcast running about 20 minutes per episode (similar to the New York Times’ “The Daily”). “If we’re serious about being in this space, we really need to have a daily, consistent news and information offering,” says Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive VP of production and executive editor. “We don’t want to be leaving money on the table.”
As more podcasts flow into the ecosystem, it’s becoming difficult to break through and find an audience, Nardini says. But it’s just the beginning of what she sees as a long, ongoing ramp in reaching Barstool fans with audio. “Spotify and Apple have just started to think about making podcasts first-class citizens on their platforms,” she says.
Barstool has inked sponsorship brands for several of its podcasts, including with Roman, SeatGeek, Starbucks, FanDuel and Square’s Cash App (which is integrated into “Pardon My Take”). The company also sells merchandise like T-shirts and hats for its podcasts and is bringing its hosts to live events. “What we’ve built is a platform that lets us understand how to promote a podcast and a personality and make it into social, video or a live event,” Nardini says.
There are still challenges the industry needs to address. Nardini notes that in podcasting, there remain big gaps in measurement. “There’s no Nielsen NetRatings of podcasting,” she says. “Advertisers ask, ‘What am I getting?'”
Pictured above: Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini