Questionable content by Barstool Sports casts a shadow on Boise State's bowl destination
When Boise State football faces Central Michigan in the Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve, it will be the Idaho school’s 24th straight bowl game – the third longest such streak in the country.
But in a first for any modern bowl game, the game won’t be on TV. The bowl’s new title sponsor, Barstool Sports, will stream the game across its platforms. Schools and conferences will link to that stream on their own sites.
Organizers say the online reach of Barstool Sports will bring more eyeballs to the game than television could. But critics say the sports, gaming and culture site’s history of misogynistic and racist content should have disqualified it as a suitable sponsor.
Barstool Sports started in the late dot-com era as a Boston-based sports publication and blog, with sports stories directly adjacent to racy photos of women.
Founder Dave Portnoy has called the site a combination of sports and smut; a ‘satirical sports and men’s lifestyle’ publication. Blogs and podcasts like, "Call Her Daddy," and "Chicks In the Office" feature prominently among sports content.
The site has a history of posting cringe-worthy, across-the-line content, as shown by this exchange from a 2012 interview between Portnoy and Inside Edition’s Lisa Guerrero.
Guerrero: "You posted the following on your site, "I never condone rape, but if you're a size six and you're wearing skinny jeans, you kind of deserve to be raped?"
Portnoy: "Correct. I stand by that. I think it's a funny joke."
Guerrero: "Do you think rape is funny?"
Portnoy: "No, I didn't say that. I think it's a funny joke."
Guerrero: "Do you know how offensive that is?”
Portnoy: "No. I obviously don't.”
Guerrero was questioning Portnoy about a blog post on Barstool he made in 2010.
Mediamatters.org, an industry watchdog, lists more than 75 instances of questionable content produced by Barstool since its inception. The flagged content includes encouraging harassment, promotion of unfounded conspiracy theories, misogyny, bigotry, sexism and discrimination.
Portnoy sold portions of the company in 2016 and 2018, but retains part ownership. Erika Nardini was hired as the organization’s first CEO following the 2016 sale. Women also fill several other leadership positions and create Barstool content including podcasts.
But the mere presence of women doesn’t automatically mean Barstool Sports is supporting and advancing women’s issues – especially sports – said Christopher Garcia.
“They did have this sort of roster of women working there, but they weren't necessarily working on sports pieces,” he said.
Garcia is a PhD student at Florida State University. This year, along with FSU communication professor Jennifer Proffitt, Garcia authored a research paper on Barstool Sports, specifically examining how the site undermines female-driven narratives in sports media.
“They're kind of of the belief of, 'what gets the ratings, gets the clicks,' and that tends not to be women’s sports,” he said.
Garcia writes that, while the trivialization and sexualization of women’s sports from mainstream sports media has declined in recent decades, much of Barstool’s content attempts to uphold and reassert the traditional masculinity of sports.
The site attempts to hide its misogyny, he said, behind a veil of fairness.
“It's not a feminist narrative, but a post-feminist narrative to say, ‘Oh, we're beyond feminism. We are on that next level of if you're good enough, if you're funny enough, if you could handle working at Barstool, it doesn't matter who you are, you're going to be successful,’” Garcia said.
Barstool’s problematic history led the board of supervisors in Pima County, Arizona, where the Arizona Bowl is located, to pull $40,000 in public funding from this year’s game. In a 4-1 vote, supervisors also requested the game remove any mention of Pima County from its marketing.
“I believe many members of our community will not feel part of the event because of the actions and words of Barstool Sports employees,” County Supervisor Rex Scott said during an August meeting.
County Supervisors instead will shift that funding to local domestic violence support programs.
The Arizona Bowl contracts with the Mountain West and Mid-American Conferences. A statement from Mountain West officials said the conference doesn’t approve or endorse sponsors of any bowl games. But the day before the Arizona Bowl and Barstool announced the sponsorship deal, Mountain West deputy commissioner Bret Gilliland emailed conference presidents and athletic leadership.
The email, obtained by records request, tried to calm any concerns about the sponsorship, noting contractual provisions in place related to uneasiness with some elements of the Barstool Sports brand, and that Barstool was committed to executing its sponsorship and game broadcast arrangements appropriately.
In a telephone conversation, Arizona Bowl Executive Director Kym Adair declined to offer specifics about the bowl’s contract with Barstool Sports; saying only that it was a multi-year deal, and that the company would be required to follow to FCC and NCAA rules during the broadcast – the same as any television network would.
She said the game will feature Barstool personalities throughout the broadcast, but exactly which personalities has not been announced. Former Creed lead singer Scott Stapp is slated to perform at halftime.
For its part, Boise State has only said it doesn’t choose the bowl game it gets to play in. University President Dr. Marlene Tromp has not commented publicly; a records request did not provide any other emails to or from Boise State regarding the Arizona Bowl sponsorship.
Other schools haven’t stayed as quiet. In the Mountain West Conference, San Diego State Athletic Director John David Wicker voiced his concern about the sponsorship to the San Diego Union Tribune in November.
The student newspaper at Central Michigan University, the Bronco’s Arizona bowl opponent, reported this month that members of its faculty were concerned about the bowl relationship with Barstool Sports, and how participating in the game might reflect on the school.
Following a multi-day exchange of email requests, Barstool Sports representatives Tuesday said CEO Nardini declined an interview about the game.
Portnoy is embroiled in a new controversy, following a November report in Business Insider alleging consensual sexual encounters with three women in their early 20s. They say the encounters turned frightening and humiliating. Portnoy, 44, said the encounters were mischaracterized and he threatened legal action against the publication, despite his own lawyer telling him he would likely lose in court.
Adair, the Arizona Bowl director, is defending the partnership and pointed to the millions of dollars of charitable work Barstool has done, and the charitable impact the bowl game, established in 2015, makes on its community. She said Barstool in the past might not have, ‘landed every joke,’ but she’s confident they’ve matured.
She’s also confident fans will have no harder time finding the stream of the game than they would loading a favorite show from Netflix or YouTube.
“We feel like we're the tip of the spear the way we're delivering content,” she said. “[Streaming] is the way people are watching a lot of content out there, and it's going to continue to go that way.”
Fans will find the game across Barstool’s online and social media platforms, as well as the participating schools and conferences' online outlets. Adair said this year’s game could easily have a larger audience than CBS, which broadcast the game last year.
Last week, USA Today reported CBS refused to broadcast the Arizona Bowl with Barstool Sports as the title sponsor.
Boise State faces Central Michigan in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl on Dec. 31.
A previous version incorrectly stated Portnoy retained majority ownership in the company. The Chernin Group bought a controlling ownership stake in 2016 and 2018. Chernin Group in 2020 sold a 36% stake in Barstool Sports to Penn Gaming. The original version also misrepresented a hockey content podcast called 'Spittin' Chiclets.'