SBJ/Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2017/Media

How ESPN went from confident to queasy on Barstool Sports

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n the days before ESPN signed a programming contract with Barstool Sports, CAA talent agent Nick Khan sent an email to ESPN President John Skipper and Connor Schell, executive vice president of content.

Khan’s email included screen shots from a 2014 Barstool blog that maligned one of his clients, Samantha Ponder, in sexist and anti-religious terms. The blog described the “NFL Countdown” host as a “bible thumping freak” and “a chick that has a job where the #1 requirement is you make men hard.”

Khan’s message was a simple one: As ESPN moved forward with Barstool on a TV show, its executives should reach out to his client, who recently took over one of the network’s highest-profile on-air positions as host of “NFL Countdown.”

Skipper and Schell brought Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling, into the loop, as Magnus was the biggest internal advocate for doing a Barstool deal. They were not caught off-guard. They knew much of the content on the site would cause some anger among both ESPN’s on-air talent and executives.

But they felt that it was a risk worth taking and decided to move forward with the deal to create a TV show around the popular Barstool podcast, “Pardon My Take,” which by that point already was eight months in the making.

The executives believed that ESPN already was in business with Barstool. The two hosts of “Pardon My Take” — Dan “Big Cat” Katz and PFT Commenter — have appeared on ESPN shows several times, like Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” and Ryen Russillo’s radio show. Similarly, ESPN talent including Rachel Nichols, Jemele Hill and Kate Fagan also have appeared on “Pardon My Take.” There was no pushback from any of these appearances.

“I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content.”
Courtesy of: ESPN
The ESPN executives viewed Big Cat and PFT — the two Barstool guys who would appear on ESPN — as supremely talented, potential stars who would appeal to a younger demographic that is not watching television, let alone ESPN. Magnus was first turned on to “Pardon My Take” by his 18-year-old son and saw firsthand how popular the podcast is with that younger group.

Magnus and Schell were satisfied that Big Cat and PFT were not the ones responsible for the vile comments about Ponder. Those were written by Barstool’s founder, Dave Portnoy. ESPN executives viewed Big Cat and PFT as potential stars, who traded on sophomoric humor that did not turn vile. Magnus and Schell both like Big Cat and PFT’s “Pardon My Take” podcast and listen to it frequently. But they saw Portnoy as a loose cannon. If the show was going to have a run on ESPN, Portnoy could not be part of it. ESPN also made sure to retain approval over the show’s content.

Stephanie Druley, senior vice president of events and studio production, talked to Ponder to let her know about the decision to move forward with the show. Ponder left the meeting more confused than angry. Following reports of sexual abuse involving high-profile people such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly, Ponder could not believe that ESPN really wanted to associate with a Barstool brand that would write such things about her.

With Magnus and Barstool CEO Erika Nardini taking the lead on negotiations, ESPN signed a deal to have a 20-week run of a show that would be called “Barstool Van Talk.” Barstool executives were adamant that the show would have “Barstool” in its name. ESPN executives wanted to build the show around the “Pardon My Take” brand.

The show was scheduled to appear weekly on ESPN2, occupying the 1 a.m. Tuesday night time slot.

The day before the show’s debut, Ponder tweeted out her displeasure about ESPN’s deal with Barstool. The tweets surprised ESPN executives; they did not know they were coming. Ponder’s tweet included screen shots of the 2014 blog that had made her so angry.

Ponder’s tweet went viral. It was retweeted more than 1,000 times and liked more than 5,000 times. Due mainly to Ponder’s tweet, a new spotlight was shone on Barstool, and many other sexist and coarse comments were unearthed from the site.

Ponder’s tweet galvanized a small but influential group within ESPN that voiced its displeasure internally. A few hours before taping the first show, Skipper, Schell and Magnus held one more conference call — a gut check to make sure they were prepared to move forward with the show.

In a podcast published last week, Big Cat and PFT said they were pacing in their room during that call, expecting the show to be axed before it even produced one episode.

But the show moved forward on Oct. 17, as Skipper, Schell and Magnus were convinced that it could attract a new audience. ESPN executives were happy with both the show’s content and its ratings (it averaged 88,000 viewers), so much so that Magnus tweeted the audience numbers the day after the show, saying that it was ESPN2’s second-highest-rated show among 18- to 34-year-old men.

To the show’s supporters, those numbers established what ESPN and Barstool wanted to accomplish — it brought a new audience to the TV network.

On his podcast last week, Big Cat said once the show launched, he assumed that ESPN was prepared to move forward with it and deal with any fallout.

But many ESPN insiders still were upset and continued to email Skipper to voice their displeasure. Under Skipper, ESPN has made diversity a priority. He grew uncomfortable with the idea that ESPN would promote a brand in Barstool that made so many of his colleagues uncomfortable.

Skipper knew what he was getting into before he signed off on the deal, but he was caught off guard by the fury associated with it. Over the weekend, he continued having conversations with upset ESPNers, both executives and on-air talent. He continued to click through some of Barstool’s content.

His unease grew.

Skipper agreed with Magnus and Schell that Big Cat and PFT were potential stars that could bring a new audience to ESPN. But he could not separate those two from the overall Barstool brand, which was part of the show’s title.

Skipper believed that Barstool would do something in the next few days, weeks or months that would put ESPN in a bad light. He had a sense that something eventually would happen that would cause him to cancel the show. He may as well do it sooner, rather than later.

When Skipper came to the office Oct. 23, he had made his decision. He told Schell and Magnus, both of whom still wanted the show to continue. Magnus called Barstool’s Nardini on Monday afternoon with the news. Nardini, in turn, called Big Cat and PFT, who were in the middle of taping a piece for their next “Barstool Van Talk” show. Magnus also called both Big Cat and PFT directly.

At 3:45 that afternoon, ESPN PR sent out Skipper’s statement announcing the cancellation.

“I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content,” Skipper said in that Monday afternoon statement.

The overwhelming din of the ESPN workforce had made their voices heard.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.


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