- Inside the network's decision to swiftly end its relationship with Barstool.
The end of the ESPN-Barstool Sports partnership came down to one person: ESPN president John Skipper.
At a certain point over the last week, Skipper became more aware of the historical content of Barstool Sports away from the popular Pardon My Take podcast, and specifically, the ugly comments made by Barstool founder and president Dave Portnoy in 2014 about ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder.
The ESPN president also received a number of emails last week (his emails are open to staffers) from employees who were upset at the partnership. Those familiar with his thinking said it had a heavy impact on him. That was in addition to those who expressed the same sentiment publicly—led by Ponder—how much they did not like the partnership between the two entities.
ESPN management had been trying to thread the line that they were in business with the talent from the popular PMT podcast (Dan Katz, PFT Commenter and Hank Lockwood) while Barstool was its own separate ecosystem. For instance, here is what ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus said prior to the debut of Barstool Van Talk last Tuesday on ESPN2.
“The comments about Sam Ponder were offensive and inappropriate, and we understand her reaction,” Magnus said. “She is a valued colleague and doing a great job for us. As stated previously, we do not control the content of Barstool Sports. We are doing a show with Big Cat and PFT, and we do have final say on the content of that show.”
On Monday afternoon at 3:20 p.m. ET, Magnus called Barstool CEO Erika Nardini to deliver the news, telling her the partnership was over.
“Effective immediately I am cancelling Barstool Van Talk,” said Skipper in a statement released 20 minutes after Magnus called Nardini. “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 the decision, we appreciate the efforts of Big Cat and PFT Commenter. They delivered the show they promised.”
A request from Sports Illustrated for Skipper, Magnus or ESPN executive vice president Connor Schell was declined.
“We respectfully decline and are letting Skipper’s statement be the comment,” said an ESPN spokesperson.
I’ve seen a lot of ESPN statements over the years and the use of the “I” here by Skipper is significant. An ESPN employee familiar with Skipper’s thinking said a lot of internal opposition to the Barstool partnership was directed specifically at him. “There is quiet satisfaction that there are some values that transcend business operations,” said one longtime ESPN staffer. “Though let's face it, this was a rogue half hour of television at 1:00 a.m. once a week.”
Nardini said on Monday afternoon that there was a clear and growing sense coming from inside ESPN during the week that the partnership could be ending.
“From looking how it played out in the media their concerns were fairly obvious,” Nardini said. “I would say a small but significant portion of ESPN’s talent base was uncomfortable with Barstool at large. Second, there were specific ESPN employees who had personal issues with Barstool in the past. Third, ESPN was doing something that was fairly uncharacteristic of ESPN which is to work with a third party brand to greenlight a show that wasn’t originated from within the network. There were obstacles to be expected in that process. But the blowback and frankly the events of last week exacerbated what was a unique situation to begin with for both of us. In this case it is ESPN’s decision what goes on its air and I completely respect that. I respect their decision but we will move on.”
"John Skipper is saying he thought he could distance himself from Barstool,” Portnoy said on his Facebook and Periscope channels on Monday afternoon. “Don't know what that means. You hired Barstool. The deal was with Barstool. The reason you needed us is because we're Barstool. That's why this audience exists and it's not going anywhere."
Nardini said she spent eight months on the ESPN deal and was personally disappointed. She said she will consider shopping Barstool Van Talk to another media outlet. “It is disappointing because I think we created a show unlike anything on television and certainly unlike anything on ESPN,” she said. “The numbers last week showed that we could bring a lot of 18 to 34 year olds to watch it which is what they wanted.”
Nardini said she could not be 100 percent sure that Skipper made the final decision but said, “I would say the decision was absolutely at the highest levels with regard to who exactly made it. I am assuming that because the statement came from John Skipper, I would say it came from him. We are disappointed. This was a big deal for us and we hoped to see it through.”
ESPN and Barstool Sports were an odd fit if you based it on the history of each entity. Once upon a time ESPN’s lawyers sent Barstool a cease-and-desist letter over Pardon My Take, claiming its logo and name were too close to Pardon the Interruption and First Take shows. ESPN staffers have also long been the target of Barstool’s ire especially when it comes to the network’s NFL reporters who cover the Patriots such as Chris Mortensen and Sal Paolantonio.
But the deal was not much of a surprise if you’ve been following the landscape over the past year as Barstool and ESPN have become promotional partners for each other. If you look at the 2017 guest list on Pardon My Take, it is littered with ESPN talent as guests including multiple appearances by Rachel Nichols and Scott Van Pelt, as well as ESPNers Adam Schefter, Kate Fagan, Matthew Berry, Greg McElroy, David Ross, Mark Teixeira, Randy Moss, Nate Silver, Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, Trey Wingo, Mike Golic, Jemele Hill, Michael Smith and Paul Finebaum. ESPN management and talent know full well that the PMT podcast drew high six figure audiences for each podcast and the demos they wanted. There are also plenty of Barstool fans inside ESPN.
One person familiar with Skipper’s thinking said don’t discount the impact of ESPN finding itself in the news—often negatively—over the past three months on wanting to get out of a controversial deal.
“He’s well aware of what the initial reaction will be in that part of the digital world that followed this show or has a gripe with the network,” said an ESPN senior employee.
As Variety noted earlier this month, the ESPN deal was biggest media deal to date. The show was produced by Embassy Row, which produces NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, NBC’s Men In Blazers and previously produced FS1’s Garbage Time With Katie Nolan. (Thus, for a short time, the Roger Goodell-loving Barstool and the league-owned morning show were part of the same content family)
Nardini said she had empathy for the ESPN executives who canceled the deal.
“What their talent wants is in some cases different than what their audience wants, and that is a very difficult place to be,” she said. “One of the interesting things about this partnership is everybody took a lot of shrapnel in it. ESPN took a lot of internal shrapnel and general media noise and we took a lot of shrapnel from Stoolies regarding selling out and questioning how we could work with ESPN.”
Barstool Van Talk premiered on Oct. 17 at 1 a.m. ET on ESPN2 and averaged 88,000 viewers. Going inside the numbers: 53,000 of the 88,000 were Men 18-49; 13,000 of the 88,000 were Women 18-49. The lead-in the show drew 61,000 viewers. Lead out was 39,000 viewers. Given the ratings were tweeted out by ESPN senior management and the show was designed to bring in 18-34 demo, you can presume ESPN was initially happy with the numbers.
“God bless Sam Ponder,” said another ESPN employee. “Masterful timing, and a perfect use of the medium that has done nothing but plague this company. The irony is delicious."