Penn National will not save Barstool Sports from itself.
It can’t. Only the willing can rehabilitate.
It shouldn’t. They’re partners, not parents.
What Penn National can and should do, however, is stop trying to bleach its chosen sports betting brand. It’s time to own your investment in a media company laden with racist, misogynistic, xenophobic content and culture.
What Barstool Sports said
The latest in a seemingly infinite line of flareups involving Barstool Sports engulfed social media in late June.
What was said about racism and xenophobia in that debate truly does not necessitate a mention. Amplifying the voice of Barstool leader Dave Portnoy is like wearing a mask over your mouth but not your nose: pointless and increases your chances to get sick.
We already know what Barstool is because its personalities tell us, then scream it louder if challenged. And soon, the lines between Penn National and Barstool will blur like watercolors as Penn’s stock price rises on Barstool’s potential.
Penn paid $163 million for a 36% stake in Barstool Sports last year, with plans to up that to 50% within three years. PNG executives Chris Rogers and Jon Kaplowitz hold two of seven seats on Barstool’s board of directors, and Kaplowitz previously weighed in on “inappropriate comments” from Barstool.
What Penn National didn’t say, then did
If you hold nearly 30% of a company’s board, it is reasonable to ask your opinion of its choices. Penn representatives first tried to stonewall and wish away our question in June: does your company agree with the xenophobic views Portnoy expressed?
When we pressed for an answer, they finally responded with this evasion:
Please refer to the response from Barstool’s principals on this.
Trust us, we did and we’re getting there. But seeing as we are here to witness Penn National furiously scrubbing years of Barstool files with a Tide pen, it makes more sense to skip weeks ahead to Penn CEO Jay Snowden finally addressing the situation.
All those ‘comedians’
Snowden talked about Barstool during the SBC Digital Summit North America in July. The talk sounded more fit for ComicCon than a gaming conference with so many references to “humor” and “comedians”:
“We obviously spent a lot of time doing diligence on Barstool and we got really comfortable making an investment in Barstool. You have to keep in mind a couple of really important factors.
One, Dave Portnoy and the folks at Barstool, they’re sort of a meshing of SportsCenter, Howard Stern and reality TV. It’s a sports media company. But at the end of the day these are entertainers, they create content, they’re comedians …
… I’ve talked to Dave about this extensively and I think what Dave would tell you, he’s said this publicly, that times change. He looks back at some of the things he did or said in 2008 or 2011 or 2013 that if it were today, he probably wouldn’t have said. It was an attempt at humor but maybe it missed the mark when you look back at it.
But most, the vast majority of the content they create, it is entertaining, it is fun, it’s funny for their audience and I think you just always have to keep that in mind. They are entertainers, they are comedians, and I’ve yet to meet or listen to an entertainer or comedian that thinks everything they’ve ever said or done hit the mark when they did it. Looking back, they don’t cringe a little bit on occasion, given the environment we find ourselves in today.”
Humor is not an excuse
Nail this idea to the wall: racism, misogyny, and xenophobia offend their intended targets no less by calling them humor. They reveal the ignorance of the sender and the complicity of those who excuse it all the same.
Penn National is the complicit party here. Snowden’s comments make clear that his company does not see Barstool’s faults as a business risk or a necessary evil.
Instead, Snowden leans on coded tropes like “the environment we find ourselves in today” to indicate Penn National sees Barstool as a casualty of a cultural revolution rather than an emblem of why we are experiencing one.
About the Barstool principals
The unsavory job of casting Barstool as a victim usually falls to Barstool itself. Because Penn’s representatives told us to refer to Barstool’s key executives, we sampled their comments.
First, Portnoy discussing ‘jokes’ about racism, misogyny, and xenophobia:
“I’ve been doing this for two decades. I’ve made fun of every group of people, every race, every creed, every culture — you name it, we’ve made jokes about it.
“So if the No Fun Club, if the cancel culture wants to go back blog by blog, video by video, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, decade by decade and comb through everything we’ve ever f—in’ said and done, yeah, you’re gonna find a few jokes that missed the mark, that things if they are said today, you’d be like, `How’d they f—in’ say this? What are they, idiots?’”
The CEO’s less-direct approach
Then we looked to Barstool CEO Erika Nardini, who joined the company in 2016. Nardini offered a deftly woven thread of red herrings, strawmen, and false choices:
When I got to Barstool Sports I said that if I was expected to apologize for everything that everyone had said and done in the last 17 years, I would be forced to literally do nothing else and it would appease exactly no one.
— Erika K Nardini (@EKANardini) June 29, 2020
Our condensed takeaway of Portnoy and Nardini, whom we summarize only because Penn’s reps said we should:
We should not be held accountable for jokes that someone finds racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic in 2020 because we made them a long time ago. Also, we would not apologize even if we chose to be held accountable because they were jokes.
Racist, misogynist, or xenophobic humor cannot be offensive now because it happened then and times change. Before now, it was a different time and we were just being authentic anyway.
We call it like we see it. And if we go too far again tomorrow, then we’ll chalk it up to another bad joke.
Penn stock soars but questions linger
“Loyal” and “authentic” are concepts both companies rely upon to excuse Barstool and to sell its upside, so much that Penn refers to Barstool’s 66 million loyal fans in its company profile.
What engenders that loyalty? Only Barstool really knows but it’s Penn who should care the most.
It is Penn absorbing Barstool into its business and profiting from Barstool’s perceived potential. It is Penn that always will be regulated in a gaming industry Nardini called “extremely serious for a lot of very good reasons” during the SBC event.
On that, we agree. Gaming’s ship will always point directly into regulatory and cultural headwinds, not by choice but by default. As such, it’s time for Penn to treat questions and concerns about Barstool more seriously.
There is no humor in the situation. There is only a void in accountability that those dedicated to the success of the legal US sports betting industry deserve to see filled.