ESPN abruptly canceled a 10-day-old partnership with the sports media outlet Barstool Sports on Monday, apparently after ESPN’s president realized he could not separate his company from Barstool’s somewhat contentious reputation.
“Effective immediately, I am canceling Barstool Van Talk,” John Skipper, the ESPN president, wrote 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.”
Featuring podcast hosts Dan Katz and the pseudonymous “PFT Commenter,” the first episode aired on ESPN2 late last Tuesday night at 1 a.m. ET.
Although ESPN received intense pushback internally from employees once rumors of a partnership with Barstool started circulating around the company’s Bristol, Connecticut campus, it’s no secret that plenty of other ESPN employees supported the partnership. Several ESPN employees have appeared on “Pardon My Take” in the past, and ESPN Radio host Ryen Russillo has brought Katz and PFT onto his own afternoon show as co-hosts on several occasions.
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) October 19, 2017
After the agreement was announced, some of that criticism became public. Sam Ponder, the host of the high-profile “Sunday NFL Countdown,” tweeted screenshots from Barstool articles that included crude and derogatory statements about her.
But Ponder is far from the only female ESPN employee Barstool has published derogatory articles about, and the site has also harshly criticized several of ESPN’s NFL reporters for their coverage of the New England Patriots and Deflategate.
Just days before the agreement was announced, in the wake of stories in The New York Times and The New Yorker detailing accusations of sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein, Elika Sadeghi, who had previously worked for Fox Sports and ESPN, tweeted a contract that an unnamed media outlet wanted her to sign.
They wanted me to sign this. I refused, for multiple reasons. I ultimately decided I didn’t want it, even if I was exempt from signing this. pic.twitter.com/3psAPIvKrQ
— Elika (@steakNstiffarms) October 11, 2017
Of course, it didn’t take long for media sources to link Barstool Sports to the story. The language in the contract seemed “aimed at inoculating a company against future claims” of sexual harassment, according to several lawyers interviewed by the Boston Globe, with at least one suggesting it was legally unenforceable.
Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy responded to Sadeghi’s tweet with a rambling video in which he called her, among other things, a “big mouth” and “biggest fraud.” Though in fall fairness, Dave Portnoy also came out and questioned the backlash against Weinstein.
Last year Portnoy sold 51 percent of Barstool to Peter Chernin’s Chernin Digital Group, at a valuation of between $10 million and $15 million. Chernin brought on a chief executive, Erika Nardini, who previously worked at AOL and other media companies. Her mission was to make the company more professional and strike big deals, like the one with ESPN. As ESPN’s cancellation demonstrates, that will be a difficult process.
During a week when countless Hollywood stars and feminist supporters spoke out against Weinstein and other industry types for their reprehensible actions, it’s a little surprising that ESPN still finds itself playing the role of ‘piñata’ with the Barstool story. Much of the criticism being focused toward ESPN is likely that of the very passionate and vocal Barstool fanbase, which is understandable considering how a major component of the media outlet’s brand was built upon mocking the Worldwide Leader from the beginning.
On a personal note, I’ve always appreciated Barstool’s role in an industry that often takes itself far too seriously. And I would be remiss not to point out that a number of women who are employed with Barstool (like Julie Stewart Binx) have come forward to defend their employer and speak out against accusations of sexism within their ranks.
So what have we learned from the failed partnership and (predictable) response that pegs ESPN as the loser in the break-up? If anything, it’s that Barstool has managed to carve out a space for itself that is fully insulated from public criticism, no matter how sexist or chauvinistic it’s content is perceived to be by the public.
So who will be the next major media outlet that Barstool should try to bed? If you ask me, Fox Sports seems to be the most plausible. Besides, they have a propensity for grossly overpaying all of ESPN’s exes anyway.