When Adelaide Halverson, a Division I volleyball player at Jacksonville State University, heard that college athletes would be allowed to profit off of their name, image and likeness, she immediately sent a direct message to Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy.
Halverson wasn’t expecting a response, but the next thing she knew, Portnoy name-dropped her in a video establishing Barstool Athletics, and she was labeled the first Barstool-sponsored athlete.
Portnoy posted his video on social media, and the Barstool Athletics Instagram account has already posted more than 1,700 student-athletes who are now “Barstool Athletes.” An email sent to accepted athletes July 3 that was obtained by Golfweek noted that Barstool had already received more than 75,000 applications via a Google Form. Barstool did not respond to requests for comment from USA TODAY Sports.
“Listen, how do you become a Barstool Athlete?” Portnoy said in his video. “If you play Division I sports and you blink at me, we will sign you.”
Barstool Athletics is not the only platform offering to sponsor any athlete that applies. EnterPRIZE Sports, a social media account that posts sports clips and other trending video content, is sponsoring more than 250 athletes who applied through a Google Form. College Weekly, another social media-based brand that focuses on Greek life, also is offering to sponsor athletes who send them a DM.
Portnoy has referred to Barstool Athletics as a “marketing agency,” but signing up to be a Barstool Athlete currently seems to involve little more than that title and a burst of publicity. The company promises exclusive Barstool merch, and after signing up, athletes’ photos are posted and their accounts are tagged on the Barstool Athletics page, which currently has more than 183,000 followers. Halverson said her following on Instagram and Twitter has increased dramatically since her photo was posted.
“I went from almost 8,000 followers to 40,000 in a couple of days,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “It was crazy. I had Crossnet Volleyball reach out to me and a few other companies too, and I think having Barstool helped me more than anything possibly could have.”
Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University, said gaining followers is only half the battle for athletes hoping to monetize their name, image and likeness on social media. Kunkel’s research has shown that companies value engagement over quantity.
“There are great examples of some influencers that have built their personal brand around being sexy. Now, that gets them a lot of likes, comments, but if they're trying to sell any sort of product, no one actually clicks on the discount codes,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “No one's actually being influenced. Where we're moving towards now is what's the actual value? How can you drive business objectives for companies and your partners?”
Jace Howard, son of former NBA All-Star Juwan Howard, plays basketball for his father at the University of Michigan and has known Portnoy since the 2021 NCAA tournament. Portnoy is a Michigan alumnus and reached out to Howard during Michigan’s run as a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Howard said he got involved with Barstool Athletics because of that connection and the wide reach of the Barstool brand.
“I feel that everything Barstool touches turns to gold,” Howard told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re such an attractive brand, and they’re growing on all platforms, not just sports. Being a part of the future of their organization in any way I can was an opportunity that I just couldn't pass on.”
Howard said he wants to gain networking opportunities and continue building relationships with the company as a Barstool Athlete. He also hopes to produce some sort of content within the Barstool brand during Michigan's basketball season, but he was uncertain what that would entail. It is unlikely that Barstool will be able to have all 1,700 of its sponsored athletes involved in content, and because no formal contracts have been signed, it is unclear which athletes, if any, will be given that opportunity.
Kunkel said the level of exposure Barstool provides will benefit athletes who are trying to build a following, but he expressed concern over the values that Barstool represents. He said athletes should consider the potential long-term impacts for their personal brands associated with any partnerships.
Barstool, and Portnoy in particular, have a long history of controversy. Former employees and consumers of Barstool’s content have accused the company of perpetuating racism, homophobia and misogyny, and Portnoy was briefly suspended from Twitter in June for violating the site's rules. Twitter would not provide further details on what prompted the suspension.
Howard said he was not concerned by the brand’s past controversies when he made the decision to become a Barstool athlete.
“When you're up top, all publicity is good publicity,” he said. “None of that really affects what we're all trying to do. There's always going to be some stuff that you might not like being said about you. That's the price of being great, as I like to put it.”
Corrine McCool, a hockey player at the University of Vermont, said she did consider Barstool’s divisive reputation but hopes being a Barstool Athlete will help her affiliate herself with Spittin’ Chiclets, a Barstool podcast that has been promoted by professional women’s hockey players.
There are also legal questions surrounding Barstool Athletics. The NCAA declined to comment on mass sponsorship platforms beyond the statement and guidelines that have been publicly released. The organization is currently deferring to states and institutions to define what NIL uses are acceptable for student-athletes.
In Alabama, where Halverson attends college, state law says that institutions may prohibit athletes from endorsing brands that promote gambling — Barstool owns a sports betting site — or any brand that negatively impacts the reputation, morals or ethical standards of the school. Jacksonville State did not respond to requests for comment. Rep. Kyle South, who sponsored Alabama’s law, said Barstool presents a gray area for schools working to define NIL guidelines.
“It may be something that [compliance] needs to look at as far as where that line is drawn,” South told USA TODAY Sports. “Barstool has lots of separate businesses running in conjunction with each other, so where is that line and is there area to work within it?”
South said he could not be certain whether the law applies to sponsorship agreements where there is not a formal contract, which is the case for Barstool Athletes. He also said he did not consider Barstool an organization that would negatively impact a school’s reputation or values, but he understood why some might perceive it that way.
Kunkel is a founder of a platform called SPRTER that allows athletes to monetize interactions with fans, and he said his team targets athletes who are building their brands around charitable giving and other meaningful causes.
Sierra Brooks, a gymnast at the University of Michigan, joined the platform after SPRTER reached out to her on social media, and she is also involved with a platform called Replay that allows younger athletes to pay for personalized coaching and mentorship. Brooks said she vets any NIL opportunity she is offered to ensure it aligns with her values and is beneficial to her.
"Social media makes it so easy, so if a brand reaches out to me, I go look at their social media to see what they're posting and what people they're interacting with," Brooks told USA TODAY Sports. "I also make sure I schedule a call with whoever's reaching out to me, because I think it's very easy to just send direct messages to a lot of different people. Doing things with people that I know, trust and have had conversations with is really important to me."
Michigan's state law allowing athletes to monetize their NIL was not supposed to take effect until Dec. 31, 2022, so Brooks said the university has struggled to provide resources and guidance on such short notice. She said the athletics department has held information Zoom calls, but she is mostly relying on her parents to guide her through the process of engaging with companies.
Kunkel said SPRTER is the product of several years of academic research that he conducted around NIL monetization, and he believes intelligent branding centers on finding what makes an athlete unique rather than participating in mass sponsorships like what Barstool provides.
“[Student-athletes] are all in a very specific target market, so they are putting a lot of pressure on existing influencers and they're also all competing with one another,” he said. “I think those that do it well don't go for the quick money. They go for brand building to monetize properly down the road. They engage with companies that can also provide more than just a quick dollar.”
Contact Emily Adams at email@example.com or on Twitter @eaadams6.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barstool Sports sponsors college athletes, but what are benefits?