By: Matt Grasso*
On the day Jemele Hill returned to SportsCenter following her two-week suspension from ESPN, the network found itself embroiled in another controversy surrounding one of its shows. Barstool Van Talk was cancelled after one episode. John Skipper, ESPN’s president, said in a press release that he “erred in assuming [ESPN] could distance [its] efforts from the Barstool site and its content.”
Barstool Sports is a popular digital media company based in New York. Dave Portnoy founded the company in Boston in 2003 attempting to mix sports, popular culture, and comedy. Over the course of the next decade, Portnoy slowly transformed his small newspaper into a rarely politically correct digital media powerhouse. In 2016, Portnoy sold Barstool to the Chernin Group, and moved the company to Manhattan. While he lost his controlling interest in the company, he was able to retain total creative control.
Since the move to New York, podcasts have become a major feature of the Barstool brand. One such podcast, Pardon My Take, has become the number one sports podcast in the country. Hosted by Dan “Big Cat” Katz and pseudonymous “PFT Commenter,” Pardon My Take satirizes main-stream sports media. Thus, it was surprising when it was announced that ESPN partnered with them to develop a television show. Barstool Van Talk, which would take place in the Pardon My Take conversion van named “Vanny Woodhead,” would air weekly in the 1 AM timeslot on ESPN2. The first episode aired on October 17th with moderate success. Despite very limited promotion, Barstool Van Talk had 88,000 total viewers on ESPN2, with the numbers from the WatchESPN app unreported. Six days later, the show was cancelled.
From the time the show was announced, there was great backlash from some of ESPN’s female employees. Sam Ponder, host of Sunday NFL Countdown, “welcomed” the partnership by tweeting a Barstool blog written in 2014 referring to her as a “bible-thumping freak” whose job is solely to arouse male viewers. Ultimately, Barstool’s history of being politically incorrect came back to hurt their chances of growth on ESPN.
There is no question that Barstool has a history of inflammatory statements about people of differing genders and religions. However, Barstool employs multiple females, and Barstool has a female CEO, Erika Nardini. Following the airing of the first episode of Barstool Van Talk, Ponder tweeted her disappointment in ESPN for partnering with Barstool, writing “I am disappointed that we are promoting a company name that still maintains support for horrific personal attacks against multiple women within ESPN.” Ponder, and other females at ESPN, such as Katie Nolan and Sarah Spain, have fair complaints against Barstool. Their grievances were known by Skipper prior to the first episode, and yet he allowed it to run.
Skipper had two options. He could have either never aired the first episode, or he could have allowed the show to continue to air, based on its own merit. Instead, he chose a third option: he was pressured by his employees, and was forced to make a statement that made no logical sense. He wrote that he assumed ESPN could air the show, but distance itself from the baggage that came with Barstool. Unfortunately, this prospect is difficult when the show is titled Barstool Van Talk.
It is no secret that ESPN has a problem reaching the targeted 18-35 market. In this era where “sticking to sports” is becoming increasingly difficult, sports media consumption is becoming less about highlights and analysis, and more about blending sports and “real life:” (i.e. politics, social movements, popular culture, etc.). In doing so, controversies can oftentimes arise. Bill Simmons was at the forefront of this movement. In May, 2015, Simmons was fired at ESPN for what Skipper called a “repeated lack of respect” for the company. This lack of respect stemmed from Simmons' unwillingness to side with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over the Ray Rice and "Deflategate" situations. Presumably, these actions upset the ESPN brass, as they have a major partnership with the NFL.
Barstool Van Talk was an attempt to reach this coveted audience. Instead of allowing the show, which was placed at 1 AM, presumably to minimize controversy, Skipper cancelled the show after one episode. This week it was reported that ESPN is expected to make another round of layoffs before the end of the year, another black mark for the sports media giant. Yet again, ESPN takes a big step forward in appealing to the young audience, but they immediately take two steps back.
* Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2020, Villanova University School of Law.
 Mark J. Burns, Past, Present, Future: How Barstool Sports Is Swinging For The Fences In Digital Media, Forbes (Jul. 11, 2017, 7:22 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/markjburns/2017/07/11/past-present-future-how-barstool-sports-is-swinging-for-the-fences-in-digital-media/#386720774edb.
 Ryan Parker, John Skipper Says He Fired Bill Simmons From ESPN for "Repeated Lack of Respect”, Hollywood Reporter (June 13, 2016, 11:30 AM), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/john-skipper-says-he-fired-902314..
 Jim Rutenberg, Bill Simmons Prepares to Stand Up to Sports Incorporated, N.Y. Times (June 12, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/business/bill-simmons-prepares-to-stand-up-to-sports-incorporated.html.
 Michael McCarthy, Sources: ESPN heading for more painful layoffs, Sporting News (Oct. 28, 2017), http://www.sportingnews.com/other-sports/news/espn-layoffs-latest-news-rumors-firings-mike-greenberg-golic-scott-van-pelt-svp-jemele-hill/1js74yxvu7l0wz8g26kdwl7nd.