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Are Barstool Sports and ESPN a Good Fit For Each Other?

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To say that the inside of a sports media office is similar to the inside of a locker room would be a fair comparison. The language among colleagues can be colorful, egos get easily bruised, competitive juices are constantly flowing, clicks get formed behind the scenes, and if you operate in a place where other brands exist that don’t create sports programming, you may receive a few nasty looks, hear a couple of whispers and maybe even earn a call from the HR department. Inside these operations there are a lot of locker room programmers who question the company’s programming choices and feel they deserve to be consulted before anything gets added to their employer’s airwaves.

It’s one thing when individuals become jealous of each other over timeslots and paychecks or if passionate people debate and argue about various sports opinions, but the one line that should never be crossed is getting personal. The second you explore that territory, future conversations and relationships are terminated. Depending on your words and the people involved, it can even lead to physical assault. As important as sports, money, and an individual’s career might be, when you attack someone on a personal level, it rarely ends well.

On Monday night I saw Sam Ponder’s tweets about Barstool Sports and came away with the opinion that most people had, she wasn’t a fan of ESPN (her employer) adding Barstool’s personalities to the network’s programming schedule. Some questioned why the network allowed Ponder to criticize their newest partner when they’ve taken others like Bill Simmons and Tony Kornheiser to task for comments made about other network shows and anchors. To many on the outside, it seemed once again to be a case of double standards and inconsistency.

As I processed Ponder’s criticisms I wondered why she was so worked up over a few distasteful tweets from the past, especially over a weekly show that was set to air on the network at 1am ET on a Tuesday night. Once I dug in deeper though, I began to understand why.

I’ll be the first to admit, I was late to the Barstool party. When the brand first began to pick up steam a few years ago it seemed like a product built for the college crowd. Given that I was in my late-30’s at the time, I wasn’t their target audience. The content appeared to be a mixture of funny, juvenile, mindless, tasteless, and offensive, but clearly it had connected with the younger demographic.

In recent years, the company has maintained its original attitude while adding better programming. Along the way, they’ve created a major impact in the social space, becoming a great study for media brands when trying to understand social engagement. They’ve also dominated the iTunes charts with the “Pardon My Take” podcast, a program which is highly entertaining and features exceptional chemistry between Big Cat and PFT Commenter, plus the company has hired other opinionated and colorful personalities such as Dallas Braden, Michael Rappaport, and Pat McAfee. Not everything Barstool does is classy or tasteful but their batting average has been much better than it was a few years ago.

However, when you rewind back to 2014 and take a listen to the rant Dave Portnoy and Dan “Big Cat” Katz went on about Sam Ponder, it’s understandable why someone like Ponder would have a long memory and take issue with ESPN giving Barstool a larger platform. What Katz and Portnoy said about Ponder is indefensible, slanderous, and offensive and there’s no way to justify to any individual inside ESPN (who isn’t a fan of Barstool) why this is a good business decision if those type of personal attacks are going to be permitted, even if the content originates on another platform. That doesn’t mean Barstool’s staff isn’t entitled to feel or express those views, but by doing so, it can jeopardize their ability to extend professional relationships with companies like ESPN.

To ESPN’s credit, their management released a statement denouncing Barstool’s previous rant. ESPN EVP of programming Burke Magnus stated, “The comments about Sam Ponder were offensive and inappropriate, and we understand her reaction. She is a valued colleague and doing a great job for us. As stated previously, we do not control the content of Barstool Sports. We are doing a show with Big Cat and PFT, and we do have final say on the content of that show.

But that begs another question, why would ESPN work with a group that allows and encourages taking aim at its employees?

Whether you’re a fan of Ponder or not, she was elevated to replace Chris Berman on Sunday NFL Countdown so clearly the network values her contributions. The company also received complaints from other personalities who were turned off by the rumored partnership and still decided it was a worthwhile endeavor. Ponder doesn’t have a voice in the company’s programming decisions, nor should she, but ESPN should be taking into consideration the feelings of their employees before entering into business with groups who create an immediate divide in the locker room.

Ask yourself this, would you invite someone into your home who punched your father in the face and called your mother a whore? Would you give access to your bank account to someone with a history of stealing money? Would a team sign a player with a history of sharing personal and private information about coaches and teammates? That’s essentially what ESPN did in this case as seen thru the eyes of professionals like Ponder and others. To expect her or other colleagues with similar feelings to stay silent would be foolish.

I can’t fault anyone at ESPN who considers it painful, embarrassing, and confusing for their employer to team up with a company that has taken aim at them on a personal level, but let’s also be clear about one key thing – not everyone inside ESPN has a problem with Barstool. Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo have shown themselves to be fans of the brand, inviting members of the company to join them on radio and television, and new addition Katie Nolan has appeared on the brand’s programming as well.

Although I can understand Ponder’s disappointment and frustration with ESPN entering into business with Barstool, there’s a reason for it. Dave Portnoy and Erika Nardini have done a tremendous job growing Barstool Sports. It may not be your cup of tea but if you don’t think Barstool has seized an opening in the sports media landscape then you haven’t been paying attention. Some consider it low-brow entertainment but usually those who feel that way are mature fans above the age of 40. Like it or not, Barstool has tapped into the younger generation of sports fans in a deeper way than even ESPN has, similar to how Donald Trump has struck a nerve with supporters and critics alike. Keep in mind, they’ve created their success without full fledged support from radio, (SiriusXM eventually signed on) television, and print.

The interesting part of this conversation is whether or not Barstool is ready to become a bigger mainstream act. To do so, they’ll likely have to modify the type of content they’ve created which hardcore fans will deem “selling out”. But to secure bigger partnerships with brands like ESPN, FOX Sports, the NFL, MLB or major advertisers, it’s going to be nearly impossible to do that when personal shots are taken at others who you’re entering into business with.

Do you think ESPN is going to advance its relationship with the Barstool brand if that type of behavior continues? How do you think those high level conversations will go if the targets become Mike Greenberg, Stephen A. Smith or Michelle Beadle? Better yet, what if Bob Iger, John Skipper or Connor Schell were viciously attacked verbally the way Samantha Ponder was by Barstool? If you think Roger Goodell, Adam Silver or Rob Manfred are going to sign off on allowing NFL, NBA or MLB brands to align with a company that personally attacks them, guess again.

I understand that Barstool’s platform is independent of ESPN, and the network has no control over what happens on it, but it does have the final say in who it chooses to work with and feature on its radio and television stations and websites and social media platforms. Would The Undefeated hire and promote a writer who has an independent website and racist agenda? Hell no. Nor would it be wise of the company to ask their other employees to accept someone as a partner who represents the opposite of their personal and professional values.

This story will be fascinating to follow because Barstool has built its identity by being aggressive, unfiltered, unapologetic and sophomoric and that strategy has worked to perfection. Say what you want about Dave Portnoy’s approach, but he’s created real, edgy, funny, disturbing and emotionally moving content that dedicated fans don’t turn away from. The reason they’ve been a hit with their audience is because of their anti-establishment persona and a willingness to fight the system and stay true to themselves. There’s no better example of that then how Portnoy responded after Ponder put the company on blast on Twitter.

It may offend some but Barstool’s formula has proven to be successful without ESPN. To reach the next level though, where both parties can feel comfortable working together and advancing each other’s professional agendas, it’s going to require change. The two parties may intend to pursue marriage but divorce will follow quickly if the personal shots I heard fired in 2014 continue in 2017 and beyond, even if they’re taking place on independent platforms.

I don’t know if this is the best marriage for ESPN or Barstool, but I do understand why they need each other. Should the relationship reach the point where it gets extended down the line, there will be a lot of internal conflict and the rumblings you heard this week from Samantha Ponder will sound like church noise compared to future conversations.

The question Bristol executives must ask themselves is, is the price of future success worth it if it means having to sell your soul? Barstool has one to answer themselves, is playing nice with corporate America aka the establishment, worth it if it means having to adjust your identity? Each company has to look in the mirror, determine if they’re happy with what they see, and prepare themselves for surgery because their appearance will be altered the second they agree to extend this business relationship.

In the meantime, for those on the outside watching it all unfold, enjoy your popcorn.

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John Skipper To Speak At The 2022 BSM Summit

“In January 2021, Skipper’s plate became even more full when he reunited with Dan Le Batard to create Meadowlark Media. Since joining forces, the group has raised millions of dollars in funding, lured key talent to join the brand, and in April, Meadowlark closed a deal with DraftKings for a reported fifty million dollars over three years. Not too shabby for year #1.

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Putting on a two-day industry conference comes with a fair share of challenges. Months are spent building sessions, selling sponsorships, and talking to so many people that by the time the event rolls around, all I can think about is reaching the finish line and avoiding major issues.

But then the event happens, and there are moments where I’m able to block out the noise for 30-40 minutes and just be present in conversation. It’s what I enjoy most. Being able to sit across from an industry leader who’s been successful in business, and pick their brain on the past, present and future of our industry is both personally and professionally fulfilling. Not only does it provide me with an education, but it helps everyone in attendance too. That’s my motivation for running this conference.

When we return to New York City on March 2-3, 2022, I’m thrilled to share that I’ll have a chance to do that once again with someone I’ve professionally respected and admired for a long time. It is an honor to announce that Meadowlark Media CEO John Skipper will join us for a special on stage conversation at the 2022 BSM Summit.

If you’ve worked in this industry or aspire to, then you’re likely aware of what John has accomplished. He’s seen the business from many different points of view and remains very much involved in helping shape its future. But before we discuss his present involvement, let’s revisit the past.

During his tenure with ESPN, John spent five years serving as company president where he secured a series of long-term, multiplatform agreements with key rightsholders such as the NBA, NFL, MLB, Major College Conferences, US Open Tennis, FIFA, the Masters Tournament and British Open, the College Football Playoff, and the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls. He also oversaw the evolution of several brands including The Undefeated, Grantland, five thirty eight, and espnW among others.

Prior to becoming company president, John held the position as EVP of Content, which he earned after helping create and introduce one of the most successful magazine launches of the 1990’s with ESPN The Magazine. His understanding and belief in digital helped ESPN move ESPN. com forward in 2000, adding a paid section, ESPN Insider, and delivering a revamped site approach to generate more advertising. His foresight also spurred the launch of ESPN3, a television network producing more than 4,000 live events on the web and through mobile devices. If that wasn’t enough, John also supported the creation of the Watch ESPN app, played a key role in elevating the careers of many of the industry’s top sports media stars today, and oversaw the growth of ESPN Films, ESPN Radio, and many of ESPN’s key television programs.

After exiting the worldwide leader, John signed on as the Executive Chairman of DAZN. In January 2021, Skipper’s plate became even more full when he reunited with Dan Le Batard to create Meadowlark Media. Since joining forces, the group has raised millions of dollars in funding, lured a number of key talent to become part of the brand, and established a strong presence in podcasting and on YouTube. In April, Meadowlark closed a deal with DraftKings for a reported fifty million dollars over three years. Not too shabby for year #1.

What I’ve appreciated about John is that he’s never been afraid to roll the dice and take risks. Some of his moves have worked out, others haven’t. The wins have been recognized across the industry, but so too have the losses. He’s had to lead a company thru high profile talent controversies, cord cutting challenges, understand the world of video, audio, print, digital, advertising, subscriptions, talent, and rights deals both domestic and internationally, all while keeping his finger on the pulse of the present state of the media business while turning an eye towards the future and knowing which areas the company should make significant investments in.

John has been thru all of it as a media executive, and he’s still doing it while building the Meadowlark brand. A recent story in Bloomberg captured some of his views on growing the Le Batard empire and navigating various parts of the industry. I highly recommend taking time to read it. You can do that by clicking here.

We have five and a half months until we’re inside the Anne Bernstein Theater in New York City, so who knows where the industry will shift during that time. One thing is for certain, John Skipper will be ready for whatever lands on his doorstep. I’m eager to spend time with him in New York treating industry professionals to his insights, opinions and leadership lessons. I’m confident those in attendance will gain value from hearing his perspectives on the industry.

I invite you to join us either in person or virtually for the 2022 BSM Summit. Tickets to the event can be purchased by clicking here. For information on sponsorship opportunities, email JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

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2022 BSM Summit Adds Pablo Torre, Joe Fortenbaugh, Kazeem Famuyide & John Jastremski

“By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day Summit.”

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The announcements continue for the 2022 BSM Summit. After recently sharing the news that former ESPN Radio executive Traug Keller would join us in the big apple to accept the Jeff Smulyan Award, and previously revealing the first fourteen participants scheduled to appear, it’s time to inform you of a few key talent who will participate in sessions at March’s show.

I’m thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Pablo Torre to the 2022 BSM Summit. Pablo’s been with the worldwide leader since 2012. During that time he’s served as a senior writer for ESPN.com, the host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and has appeared on shows such as Around The Horn, Highly Questionable, and The Dan Le Batard Show. He also previously co-hosted High Noon with Bomani Jones. Prior to joining ESPN he spent five years writing for Sports Illustrated. Having worked with a mixture of talent from various backgrounds, I’m looking forward to having him share his insight and opinions on the value of it at the show.

Pablo isn’t the only ESPN personality joining us in New York for the conference. I’m excited to welcome back a great friend and one of the smartest sports betting analysts on television, Joe Fortenbaugh. Joe is regularly featured on ESPN’s sports betting program Daily Wager. He also appears on other ESPN programs and segments on television, radio and digital platforms. Prior to joining the network he hosted 95.7 The Game’s morning show in San Francisco, and hosted “The Sharp 600″ sports betting podcast. He’ll moderate a conversation with sports betting executives at the show.

Given that this two-day sports media conference is taking place in the heart of New York City, it’d be silly to not include someone who’s passion, energy, sound, and content embody what New York is all about. The Ringer’s John Jastremski will make his BSM Summit debut in 2022. The ‘New York, New York’ host is known to many for his years of contributions on WFAN. It’ll be fun picking JJ’s brain on the differences between performing on a traditional platform and the digital stage.

Jastremski isn’t the only one with a connection to The Ringer who will participate at our 2022 event. My next guest is someone who I’ve followed on YouTube and Twitter for years, has infectious energy and likeability, and has taken his life experiences and sports passions and turned them into opportunities with MSG Network, SNY, The Ringer, Bleacher Report, WWE, The Source and various other outlets. Kazeem Famuyide will join us to shed light on his journey and offer his perspective on the value of traditional vs. non-traditional paths.

By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day event. I’ll be announcing the addition of a very special executive in mid-October, as well as a few high profile speakers and awards recipients in the weeks and months ahead. I’m appreciative of so many expressing interest in speaking at the conference, and as much as I’d like to include everyone on stage, I can’t. Keeping the Summit informative, fresh and focused on the right issues is important, and to do that, I’ve got to introduce different people, perspectives and subjects so our attendees gain value to further improve the industry.

A reminder, the 2022 BSM Summit is strictly for members of the sports media industry and college students aspiring to work in the business. It brings together people from more than thirty different media companies and focuses on issues of relevance and importance to media industry professionals. The show takes place March 2-3, 2022 in New York at the Anne Bernstein Theater on West 50th Street. Tickets and hotel rooms can be secured by visiting BSMSummit.com. For those unable to attend in person, the Summit will also be available to view online. Virtual tickets can be purchased by clicking here. Hope you’ll join us!

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Traug Keller Named 2022 Recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award

“Former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award.”

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Photo Credit: ESPN Images

Sometimes decisions are difficult. Other times they’re not. This was one of the easiest ones I’ve made since launching the BSM Summit in 2018.

If you haven’t attended the Summit before, one of the cool parts of the conference each year is that we take time to honor people who have left a permanent mark on the industry we love. Awards ceremonies are held both days to recognize difference makers who have made positive contributions to the sports radio business. At our 2022 BSM Summit, I am pleased to share that a great man will be celebrated for his life’s work.

It is my honor to announce that former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award. Keller becomes the third industry executive to earn the honor. Kraig Kitchin and Dan Mason were the first two to be recognized at the 2019 and 2020 BSM Summit’s.

Upon learning that Traug had been selected as the next Jeff Smulyan Award winner, Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan said, “Traug Keller has left an indelible imprint on not only sports radio, but on all of broadcasting through his remarkable career. I’m proud to call him my friend, but I’m just one of the legions of people who have loved every minute of their time with him. He’s a broadcaster’s broadcaster, but more than that he’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”

“I am humbled for sure but thrilled to be receiving an award with the name of my good friend on it, Jeff Smulyan,” added Traug Keller, now the EVP and COO of American Media. “Jeff did what all too few leaders in business do, he took risk and action against all kinds of headwinds and the rest of us in the great business of Sports Audio were the beneficiaries of it. Thanks to BSM for this great honor and I look forward to seeing a bunch of old friends in March!”

Anyone who has crossed paths with Traug over the past three decades knows how important he was to the success of ESPN Radio. He’s been a friend to many, a great partner to hundreds of radio affiliates, and a champion for talent. His support for BSM has also meant a lot.

Perhaps even more impressive was Traug’s ability to connect with his affiliates, clients and colleagues, offering steady leadership and on-air stability for ESPN Radio. No executive leaves with a perfect record, but Keller had a knack for landing on the right side of many decisions. None as impressive though as retiring from sports radio in February 2020, one month before the sports world came to a screeching halt and a global pandemic rocked the entire advertising industry. Talk about timing Traug, haha.

In all seriousness, having Traug and Jeff together on the same stage in front of the industry to give folks an opportunity to show their appreciation for their accomplishments is a real treat. So many enjoy professional success today due to bold and smart decisions made by each of these men, and I couldn’t be happier to spend time with both in New York City this March.

For tickets, hotel and additional details regarding the 2022 BSM Summit visit BSMSummit.com.

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