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Volume 21 No. 13
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Conversations at Villanova symposium

Several conversations caught my attention at the 2017 Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium at Villanova on April 7. Here are two that stuck with me.

The Barstool Effect

Barstool Sports has made its name by being an independent blog, not beholden to pressure from leagues or advertisers.

So it surprised me to hear its top business executive say that she is “very open” to establishing partnerships with the leagues and other media companies.

“Our brand is very established, but we are a very young company,” said Barstool CEO Erika Nardini. “Part of growing is starting to work with established players. When I got to Barstool [nine months ago], Barstool had never met up with Twitter. They had never met up with Facebook. They didn’t meet with reporters or people like ESPN or others. This week we broke two pieces of news and were credited for that on ESPN. That, in and of itself, is radical for Barstool.”

Even if it partners with others, Nardini said Barstool will not lose its focus on funny takes.

“You’ll never see us cover something in an Xs and Os capacity,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see us be the straight guy on something. But you will see us work with a lot of people.”

Later in the conversation, Nardini said Barstool’s independence is what sets the company apart from more established players like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, who also had executives on the panel.

“I don’t think there’s enough conversation around the business model because the business model is what chokes change,” she said, pointing to sponsor pressures as stifling new content ideas. “When you look at how many seasons there were of ‘American Idol,’ it went on forever. The reason is it commands so many ad dollars, it delivers enough eyeballs, that it perpetuates itself because the network doesn’t have a replacement show.

“The thing that has to change with content is how you make it commercial. … My single biggest focus from a monetization standpoint is [figuring out how to] get people to love the Barstool brand. How do I get people to want to wear the Barstool brand, show the Barstool brand. That enables us to be free in what we talk about.”

ESPN’s Eric Johnson and Barstool Sports’ Erika Nardini discuss content and engagement.
Photo by: JOHN OURAND / STAFF

In response, Eric Johnson, ESPN executive vice president of global advertising revenue and sales operations, quipped, “I enjoy all of our revenues.”

He said ESPN’s focus has been on developing appropriate content for all of the different platforms.

“We’re noticing that for the Major League Baseball fan, every device has its own median age and the spectrum is 20-25 years,” he said. “It’s less about leagues, sometimes, and it’s more about platform and the ability to deliver through the platform. The same interest and consumption exists. It’s just consumed differently.”

Johnson added that ESPN research has showed that younger fans may watch three hours of MLB games, but not in one sitting.

“They might consume three hours of Major League Baseball across lots of platforms,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that the interest isn’t there or the engagement isn’t there. It’s going to be across all of our brands in terms of how they consume it.”

‘Sleepy Eyes’ Speaks

In an April 1 tweet, President Trump referred to “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd as “Sleepy Eyes.”
Event moderator Andrew Brandt, who helped develop the program, asked Todd what it’s like to have the U.S. president tweet about your eyes.

Todd: “He’s tagged me for a couple of years with that nickname. I asked him one time, ‘Where did you get that?’ He said, ‘I don’t remember. But once I come up with a nickname, I can’t change. Branding is everything.’

“I don’t want to become part of the story,” Todd said. “It is a strategy in politics more and more to make the media part of the story. It’s a deflection technique. If the media is part of the story, there’s less focus on what they did or didn’t do.”