Barstool Sports bowl game: Toxic sponsorship for college football, innovative or both?

·11 min read

Out of a record 43 postseason games this season in major college football, one stands out for seemingly all the wrong reasons – The Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl between Boise State and Central Michigan.

The matchup on New Year’s Eve in Tucson will be the first major college bowl game in at least 40 years that will not be shown on traditional television, cable or satellite channels.

After reaching 1.77 million viewers last year on CBS, the game lost the network as a television partner this year because CBS didn’t want to do business with the game’s controversial new title sponsor, Barstool Sports.

More recently, that same title sponsorship has led to a series of awkward responses from the schools involved in the game, including at a faculty meeting where a professor asked the university president why their school would associate with such a company.

The Arizona Bowl has a new partnership with Barstool Sports for the Dec. 31 game in Tucson, Arizona.
The Arizona Bowl has a new partnership with Barstool Sports for the Dec. 31 game in Tucson, Arizona.

“We are aware of the issues with Barstool leadership,” CMU President Bob Davies replied. “We are also in direct communication with their chief executive officer, who is keeping us up to date in many of the actions that they are taking to mobilize their brand for the betterment.”

Add it all together and this sounds like some kind of backwater bowl game, headlined by the most objectionable title sponsor in bowl game history.

But is it?

Actually, it’s the opposite, said the game’s executive director, Kym Adair. Instead of being broadcast on traditional TV, the game will be streamed on the website and social media of its title sponsor, Barstool Sports, a digital media company that is blowing up the traditional bowl game business model in ways good and bad, depending on the viewpoint.

Adair described the game’s digital distribution model as being at the “tip of the spear” in the media marketplace, much like streaming giant Netflix, except no paywall. This model and the Barstool Sports audience could attract a large viewership of new and younger consumers, along with a digital production that will use 36 cameras instead of the estimated 16 it used before when televised by CBS, Adair said. Rock singer Scott Stapp is set to perform at halftime, and Adair predicts the game’s production “will be as high-quality or better than we’ve ever had before.”

“When you get to know the company and just not read the headlines, our decision to make Barstool Sports our title sponsor becomes absolutely easier to understand,” Adair told USA TODAY Sports. “The problem is people stop at the headlines and don’t get to know the company the way we’ve gotten to know the company.”

The headlines often focus on the company founder, Dave Portnoy, the face of the Barstool brand. He and the company have been accused of racist and misogynistic conduct, including using a racial slur and joking about rape: “Though I never condone rape, if you’re a size 6 and you’re wearing skinny jeans you kind of deserve to be raped, right?" Portnoy stated in 2010.

As a media company, Barstool Sports caters to a male audience with its commentary on sports and pop culture, along with photos of scantily clad women. Its followers have been known to cyberbully those who cross ways with Portnoy and others at Barstool Sports.

But it’s no small brand. The company was valued at $450 million last year when Penn National Gaming, a gambling company, bought a 36% ownership stake in it. That company’s share price then dropped 20% on the day Business Insider published allegations of sexual misconduct against Portnoy, which he denied.

“It's difficult to see a justification for any institution of higher education to align their brand with a sponsor like Barstool,” said Nancy Lough, a professor at UNLV with expertise in sports marketing and sponsorship. “This is a slippery slope in my opinion. While there's no question that money drives many of the ambitions behind college football, there are another 300 or so athletes and thousands of students who will have this decision reflected upon the institution where they will receive their degree.”

Most of the unusual reaction to this game stems from this reputation, its stature in the sports media market or both. In some cases, it’s gotten downright awkward.

Why it’s online-only

CBS televised the game last year but declined to televise it with Barstool Sports as the title sponsor, leading Barstool Sports to buy the broadcast rights to the game. Adair said this was because CBS saw Barstool as a competitor it did not want to help promote.

CBS didn’t return a message seeking comment.

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“We were willing to be title sponsor and let CBS do the broadcast,” Portnoy said on his podcast in July. “CBS didn’t want to work with us. And I said, 'If CBS won’t work with us, kick them the (expletive) out. Get those (expletive) white-hair, bluebeard. … Get them out. We’ll do the game ourselves. CBS, (it wasn’t) because they didn’t like us. I think they knew they were going to eat their lunch and view us as a competitor.”

Portnoy said ESPN previously also shot down a chance to work with Barstool Sports when it expressed a similar interest in sponsoring a bowl game in Mobile, Alabama. Adair said working with Barstool instead of traditional TV networks allowed the game to have more “autonomy” and flexibility in picking its date and time.

The rest of the sprawling bowl game industry exists in large part because it provides coveted live sports events for television during the holiday season, especially for ESPN and ABC, both owned by Disney. Their channels will televise 40 of the 43 major postseason games, starting Friday with the Bahamas Bowl on ESPN.

Carefully crafted statements

Normally, schools don't have reason to be shy about their bowl game's title sponsor. This game is different. The participating schools have been tiptoeing around the issue, pointing out that they don’t pick which bowl game they go to and that team selections to bowl games are determined by contracts between their leagues and individual bowls. This game matches teams from the Mid-American and Mountain West conferences.

When asked about Barstool, Boise State said in a statement that “institutions do not choose their bowl game.”

Davies, the CMU president, told a concerned professor at the faculty meeting this month that “we are not given any options … as to the bowl selection process.”

The Mountain West noted it "neither approves nor endorses" the title sponsorships or broadcast outlets of its bowl games. CMU also provided a statement to USA TODAY Sports.

“It is important to note that neither CMU nor the Mid-American Conference (MAC) are able to approve the bowl’s sponsors or selected broadcast partners — those are selected at the discretion of the bowl and approved by the NCAA,” CMU’s statement said. “We understand the concerns regarding the sponsor, Barstool Sports, but we trust that the Arizona Bowl team will manage the event appropriately and provide a championship-level experience for our students, coaches, staff and fans. We remain committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and we will continue to champion our core values of integrity, respect, compassion, inclusiveness, social responsibility, excellence and innovation.”

The NCAA's stance

The NCAA, which certifies bowl games, once helped cause the International Bowl in Toronto to go out of business after killing a proposal to let 5-Hour Energy become the game’s title sponsor, the game’s former director told USA TODAY Sports. The issue then was the NCAA’s objection to certain energy drinks.

The NCAA's postseason bowl handbook also gives the following examples of "topics and entities" that are not permitted to be associated with bowl games as title sponsors:

►"Public personalities whose personas/images are inappropriate for NCAA audiences," such as those "who promote hatred, misogyny or discrimination."

►"Companies primarily involved in gambling or gaming business activities."

►"Overt and demeaning portrayal of males and/or females as sexual objects."

In this case, the NCAA said in a statement that it reviewed Barstool Sports and approved it as a title sponsor after receiving assurances that Barstool Sports would “create a traditional bowl partnership, sponsor the game with integrity, and promote student-athlete safety and well-being consistent with the core principles of the NCAA.”

Pre-emptive protests

Another conspicuous reaction to this game was that potential participants were hearing protests about it before the game’s actual participants were even announced. At Northern Illinois of the MAC, the school newspaper published an editorial about it last month.

“The Northern Star Editorial Board feels that this partnership is questionable at best, but under no circumstances should Portnoy be present at the game,” the editorial stated. “Given that the bowl’s mission statement includes 'striving to inspire youth,’ it does not feel appropriate for Portnoy or Barstool to be associated with such an event.”

San Diego State athletics director John David Wicker also addressed the matter last month in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“We’ve definitely had some staff people that have voiced their very strong opinion that they do not in any way, shape or form appreciate what Barstool is,” he said. “The way they talk about women and things like that. I would definitely have to agree with a lot of their sentiments.”

Money matters

Locally, there have been objections, too. In August, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel nearly $40,000 in funding to the local game because of its association with Barstool Sports. It cited an eight-page slideshow of offensive remarks from Portnoy and Barstool and also voted to remove the county’s name and logo as a primary partner of the game from the game’s website.

Adair declined to say what Barstool is paying for the title sponsorship or media distribution rights but said the fees for the title sponsorship and broadcast rights “are commensurate with that added visibility and quality of our game.”

Separately, on Dec. 5, Central Michigan predicted it would lose money from the game in the same news release announcing its participation in it.

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“CMU will not receive sufficient revenue from its appearance to cover travel expenses for the team and marching band,” Central Michigan stated, pleading for donations in an otherwise celebratory announcement.

But this has nothing to do with the game’s streaming model or Barstool Sports, Adair said.

CMU removed that sentence from its news release after USA TODAY Sports asked the bowl about it. It is still asking for donations to its bowl fund.

Like other bowl games, she noted that her bowl doesn’t give its payout directly to participating teams but instead to their conferences, which then share collective bowl payouts with their members. She declined to say what her game’s payout is.

“Our portion of that is not a reflection on whether or not a team has the funds to cover the bowl experience,” Adair said.

The game is owned by a nonprofit that aims to support the local community. It ended the fiscal year in 2020 with $139,000 more in revenue than expenses.

Its tax filing from that year shows $103,500 in revenue from broadcasting, $1.2 million from “qualified sponsorships” and $838,000 from ticket sales from its game in 2019, when CBS Sports Network televised it and Nova Home Loans was the game’s title sponsor.

Its contract with Barstool is a multi-year deal, starting with this game, though Adair declined to say how many years are in the deal. She also said Barstool was not the game’s only option for a title sponsor and emphasized the game and its digital production are led by women, including herself and Barstool CEO Erika Nardini, who didn’t return messages seeking comment.

As the game’s executive director, Adair said she is pleased with how the title sponsorship has worked out so far and noted “we don’t want to be just another bowl” in a season of so many on ESPN and ABC.

“Oh my gosh, the fresh ideas and the energy coming to us through this partnership has been incredible,” Adair said. “We’re so excited… The added visibility that comes with our game we’re very excited about. It will be available in a lot of different places, but also, we do this for our community. We are a bowl game the way bowl games used to be. We are one of the outliers.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barstool Sports' sponsorship of Arizona Bowl remains sensitive subject