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Tim Steller's opinion: In Arizona Bowl deal, unsavory sponsor’s loyal audience trumps all

Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, answers questions from the media following last week's news conference in Tucson that announced Barstool Sports is the new title sponsor of the Arizona Bowl.

The fans of Barstool Sports will not come across this column.

The “Stoolies,” as they’re known, don’t care what a 50-something writer for a 144-year-old newspaper, of all things, says about their beloved company and its founder and figurehead, Dave Portnoy.

Unless, that is, Portnoy decides to go after this writer, this critic, this idiot for the ignorant things I’m going to say. Then, Portnoy may decide to point his millions of followers to the column and issue a subtle message such as the single word “Attack!”

Then they’ll notice. And they will attack — by social media, by email, by phone, whatever. It’s an experience others who have crossed Portnoy and Barstool have had before. And that’s just one of the sins the company is known for.

But the same quality that makes Portnoy and the company he founded objectionable also makes them attractive. It’s this audience — this vast, loyal, younger audience.

This, we are told, is why we should be happy that the Arizona Bowl has partnered with Barstool Sports as not only the sponsor but also the game’s broadcaster, replacing CBS Sports.

As Kym Adair, the bowl game’s executive director, has noted, the audience just watching the announcement of the partnership last week was huge.

“We had more people watch our announcement through Barstool Sports than actually watched our game on CBS network television in 5 hours,” she told me Tuesday. “The incredible visibility and impact this will bring to Tucson is unmatched.”

So that’s the trade-off we’re being asked to embrace: A partnership with an organization that has a history of misogyny and occasional practice of harassment in exchange for an audience that will breathe some life into a bowl that is often pretty hard to get excited about.

After all, we’re talking about a game featuring teams finishing several places below the top of the standings in the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West. It’s great to have in town, but it’s not a high-profile football matchup.

While Barstool has a stable of sports personalities blogging, doing podcasts and handling social media, its most prominent face is the founder, Portnoy. He is a peripatetic presence, popping up around the country on social media, known for his short video reviews of pizza slices, among other things.

He reviewed slices from Time Market and No Anchovies while in Tucson last week.

He’s also been known for misogyny that he tends to claim is “satire” or a joke. The well-known litany of incidents includes:

The time in 2010 he wrote: “Even though I never condone rape, if you’re a size 6 and you’re wearing skinny jeans you kind of deserve to be raped right? I mean skinny jeans don’t look good on size 0 and 2 chicks, never mind size 6′s.”

The 2012 statement about the company’s “blackout party” events: “Just to make friends with the feminists I’d like to reiterate that we don’t condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties in mid-January. However if a chick passes out, that’s a gray area.”

The 2017 post that led to the cancellation of an ESPN partnership, in which he said of ESPN employee Sam Ponder, “the #1 requirement is you make men hard.”

The episodic misogyny may have eased in recent years. The Chernin Group bought a majority share beginning in 2016, then Penn National Gaming bought a 36% share last year, in a deal that will bring the gambling company a 50% share within three years.

The company is headed by a female CEO, Erika Nardini.

But while the company has gone somewhat mainstream, Portnoy’s tendency to disproportionately attack critics has continued. In March this year, a hockey commentator objected to Barstool’s “unapologetic misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the repeated condoning of nonconsensual sex.”

Portnoy told a Barstool employee known for making memes to “attack!” He, and others, did.

The persona Portnoy plays on social media is much like Howard Stern and the old radio shock jocks. There are also echoes of Donald Trump.

It’s the old trick of transgressing social rules, or bullying people, then calling anyone who objects a prude or a square who doesn’t get the joke.

Adair justified it this way: “They’re not interested in political correctness. They’re interested in free speech and authentic speech.”

Of course, the money motive is always lurking in the background. And in Barstool’s case, that money appears to increasingly come from gambling.

Penn National Gaming’s major investment in the company is centered on the Barstool Sportsbook mobile betting application. It’s not one of the biggest online betting platforms right now, but if Barstool’s audience can be steered that way, it could grow by a lot.

And now Arizona is a good place to get in the game. A wide-ranging bill passed this year legalized sports betting in Arizona. A total of 20 licenses to handle sports gambling will be issued, and each licensee can make its own deals with betting platforms such as the big ones, DraftKings and FanDuel.

“A lot of people are asking whether the #barstoolsportsbook will be live in Arizona before the #barstoolbowl,” Portnoy tweeted last week. “The answer is yes.”

So the Arizona Bowl gets a built-in audience for a game of marginal public interest, and Barstool Sports gets a chance to promote its brand and betting platform as part of a college bowl game.

No wonder everyone would prefer to ignore the ugly stuff.

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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