This week, ESPN premiered a new show on ESPN 2 called Barstool Van Talk, hosted by Barstool Sports personalities and Pardon My Take podcast co-hosts PFT Commenter and Dan Katz. According to sources familiar with the situation, ESPN originally did not want the Barstool Sports name and logo associated with the new show, but caved after Barstool president Dave Portnoy insisted on the branding.
Given that Barstool largely built its audience by publishing openly and aggressively misogynistic and otherwise offensive blog posts, and given that Portnoy remains a source of such content, it’s understandable that ESPN may have preferred to distance themselves from the brand, even as they crave its demographic reach. It’s also laughably predictable that ESPN would give in on this point, intent as they are to seem cool, or subversive, or whatever it is the dang kids are into these days. (ESPN declined to comment for this story.) It’s even less surprising that Portnoy, desperate to stay relevant as Barstool has begun to outgrow him, would be adamant about slapping the signature tag on his company’s biggest success. (Barstool CEO Erika Nardini didn’t respond to multiple email requests for comment from the company or Portnoy.)
Portnoy recently sold a majority stake of the company to the Chernin Group, and then watched as two of his own employees eclipsed him. Katz and PFT Commenter have one of the most popular podcasts in America, and now they have a show on a network that Portnoy used to mock. Meanwhile, Portnoy is stuck cranking out videos in which he eats pizza on the street and hosting a college football show on Facebook that is so poorly produced, one episode aired without audio. The college football show was cancelled after six episodes.
As Katz and PFT Commenter’s star rises, it’s increasingly obvious that the new money and exposure means there’s at least an implicit expectation for Barstool and Portnoy to be smarter with their shtick. That means he likely can’t call women “ugly dykes” as freely as he once would, or joke about how women who wear size-six jeans deserve to be raped, or continue to defend a now-deleted post titled “Could Serena Williams Rape You?” In fact—though it still has a long way to go—the Barstool culture has changed enough that, after speculating if Harvey Weinstein should be allowed to ask for sex from actresses in exchange for roles in movies, Portnoy was compelled to apologize. Still, Portnoy managed to lament about PC culture run amok in his apology post, and referenced the time he went on TV to defend a rape joke:
But at the same time it sucks to live in a world where you literally have to bite your tongue every two seconds because people want to stir up controversy out of nothing. But that is the world we live in and I know it. Sometimes I wish I could just throw on the purple pinny and go to war like the old days.
The so-called new days aren’t so different that Barstool would abandon its “Daily Smokeshow” photos of college women, but for the bros and former bros nostalgic for the good times when Barstool could yell with abandon about feminist cunts, today’s Barstool is a neutered husk of its old self. This has created some awkward moments for the company, such as a recent radio broadcast in which alt-right troll Anthime Gionet was chided for his anti-Semitic jokes by a Barstool employee who had previously defended his own right to make similarly offensive jokes in the “name of comedy.”
On Tuesday, ESPN host Sam Ponder, whose job Barstool had previously written is to “make men hard,” called out Barstool for their previous treatment of her. (She thought Dan Katz had written the post in question; it was actually written by Portnoy and John Feitelberg.)
On Wednesday, the day after the first episode of Barstool’s ESPN show aired, she expressed her disappointment in ESPN.
Though Ponder is the only ESPN employee to have publicly and forcefully expressed her concerns about ESPN entering into a partnership with Barstool, she is far from the only ESPN employee who has those concerns. Thoughts similar to Ponder’s have been expressed in conversations I’ve had with ESPN talent, and The Big Lead recently reported that ESPNW columnist Sarah Spain sent emails to ESPN executives laying out her reservations over a partnership with Barstool.
On Wednesday, Portnoy went on WEEI radio and praised his ESPN partners for their support of Barstool:
“To their credit, the executives at ESPN, they went out on a limb. I think they knew there would be backlash. I don’t think they knew the Sam Ponder controversy was going to erupt. But they were a network who said ‘We’re going to take some flak, but we think it’s worth it, because we stand behind the humor.’”
He also admitted Barstool had to be careful not to “jeopardize” the partnership:
“We want to stay true to who we are, but we don’t want to jeopardize this relationship. It’s an interesting relationship, to say the least.”
It’s a relationship that’s made even more fraught by ESPN’s failure to distance Barstool Van Talk from the Barstool brand. The network is betting that Katz and PFT Commenter—whose podcast is increasingly described as a silo within the Barstool organization by fans who would rather not reckon their enjoyment of it with the hosts’ relationship to Portnoy—can be different enough and funny enough to set the show apart from standard Barstool dreck. That’s wishful thinking, and such separation gets even harder when the show is wrapped in the Barstool name and logo.