Here, a hangout for trash talking
At Barstool Sports, cheap shots flow
MILTON — Dave Portnoy, the blogger and would-be media tycoon, spends most of his life under very tight deadlines. Every 30 minutes or so, he has to feed the Stoolies, as his devout readers are known, so he spends his days searching for things to savage.
The act of verbally destroying another for the sake of comedy is an old crutch of Boston humor that some say came over with the British and the Irish, a method of self-policing that Portnoy excels at. And now, from a decrepit office in Lower Mills, he is trying to turn this extreme brand of the street-corner rankdown into a media empire.
Barstool Sports, which began life seven years ago as a free Boston newspaper whose only reason for existing was as a vehicle to hold ads for online gambling companies, has evolved into a popular Internet brand that is not so much about sports as it is a site for the beer-commercial version of guys who like sports. Think Maxim and TMZ for hockey fans, with an emphasis not on covering the culture but in crushing it.
“I think I have a line,’’ he said of the vicious tone of the site, where lives are dragged out in public and trampled. “But maybe I don’t.’’
Not everyone finds his methods funny, especially when it comes to his treatment of women, seen by many as extremely sexist. The site is littered with photos of scantily clad women; he openly fantasizes about what he would like to do with certain celebrities (if he weren’t married); and, each day, a local girl’s Facebook photos are turned into a pictorial as the “Smokeshow of the Day.’’
But for all its inherent controversies, Barstool’s popularity is unarguable. Over the first four months of 2011, Portnoy’s blogs averaged just over 962,000 unique visitors each month, according to ComScore, which measures Web traffic. “Viva la Stool’’ signs can be seen in the background of television shots everywhere from the Final Four to outside Buckingham Palace at the royal wedding to outside the White House the night Osama bin Laden’s death was announced.
“Growing up in high school, I played sports, and I was friends with the guys who played sports, the kind of guys who bust [chops] in the locker room,’’ Portnoy said, explaining the popularity of the Stoolie ethos. “There are groups like that at every school. This is just a real count of that.’’
Now Portnoy is taking that slash-and-burn sense of humor that has played so well locally — “I’d go toe-to-toe with anybody in the Boston media over our group, 18-35 year-old guys,’’ he says — and expanding aggressively into other markets.
His current target is Chicago, where he hopes to open his sixth Barstool franchise. It will join sites devoted to New York — the first franchise, launched a year-and-a-half ago — and Philadelphia, plus a site geared directly to college students, Barstool U. StoolLaLa, a site for women, premiered last summer, but failed to catch on and was shut down in April.
He runs his fledging “sports/smut’’ brand, as he calls it, from a former doctor’s office in Milton that looks like the morning after a fraternity party and operates under the principle that if something is on the Internet, it is fair game.
And that includes Portnoy himself. He repeatedly points out that he is the most ridiculed person in the Barstool universe. Each day, he is savaged in the comments section of his own website. Recurring themes include the fact that he looks like Mark Zuckerberg, is Jewish, grew up in Swampscott, has a big nose, and has terrible grammar and posture. Stoolies also make fun of him for being married and being old. He is 34.
Portnoy insists that he is simply playing a character — he writes under the name El Presidente — and that character is the male id.
“If a guy could go back and be a Greek god or a Roman emperor and you could have girls feeding you grapes and have sex with whoever you wanted — the world is your concubine, that sort of thing — that’s who we are,’’ said Portnoy. “We’re expressing that out. That’s truthful. If I could get away with that, I would do that. But I also have logic. I understand that’s not the world we live in. But we play it up and say ‘What if you could do everything you wanted?’ It’s a character who doesn’t care about social norms.’’
In recent blogs, El Presidente has written that a sleeping woman allegedly groped on a Delta flight was “begging’’ for it and co-opted a quotation from the Holocaust memorial downtown to argue that skinny jeans are ruining women’s derrieres.
The tone of El Presidente is the tone of an entire brand now, and his writers are under orders to follow that lead. When his new Philadelphia blogger wrote that a California man who drove 100 miles per hour with his wife clinging to the hood of his car was obviously wrong, the writer got a lecture. “That’s not what we do,’’ Portnoy said. “His job was to say why he was right.’’
Portnoy’s writing formula is something he backed into. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he got a job in sales, got bored with that, then tried unsuccessfully to break into the gambling industry (he has always loved to bet), but heard that online gambling sites were desperate to advertise in places beyond the Internet.
Portnoy created Barstool Sports as a print newspaper to take such ads, wrote a little bit to give it some content, and that was about it until he put a photo of the actress Jessica Biel on the cover. (The photo was not his to publish, and Portnoy openly admits that he knows little and cares less about copyright law. He unapologetically steals photographs, videos, and content from many sources, including The Boston Globe and Boston.com, and says that while he has been threatened with lawsuits “a million times,’’ no one has filed.)
The success of the Biel issue led to the idea of putting local girls on the cover, and the publication quickly morphed into “sports/smut.’’
He still prints 40,000 issues of the print publication every two weeks, but the focus now is expanding online, where his ability to cater to a particular male temperament has made Barstool into what is known as a “launch site’’ capable of making a video go viral; Keenan Cahill, the kid giving the Herb Brooks speech from the movie “Miracle,’’ and the Cambridge rapper Sam Adams all shot to cyberstardom after being featured heavily on Barstool.
You would never know from his office, but Portnoy insists that the company is more than supporting itself. He has seven full-time employees, says he sold $350,000 worth of T-shirts last year, and is looking to continue his expansion by sticking to the local formula, especially when it comes to women.
“I’d rather look at [a local girl] than look at a Photoshopped picture of Halle Berry again,’’ he said, adding repeatedly that he gets permission from the women before he posts the photos. “It’s meant to be the ultimate comment on her looks, just saying, ‘Hey, you’re pretty.’ ’’
Still, the father of one “Smokeshow’’ came looking for Portnoy at his house. “I wasn’t there, but according to accounts of the episode, he wanted to kill me,’’ he said.
In the fall, a student at Simmons College allegedly sent Portnoy an e-mail about how her women and gender studies class had discussed his site and determined it was the “scariest thing they had heard in a long time.’’ The swift and vicious response from Portnoy and the Stoolies so unsettled some students that the school staged an open forum to discuss their concerns.
Meghan Mahoney, director of programs at the Northeastern University Sport and Society Center, says what is most troubling about Barstool’s treatment of women is that it is done in such a glib tone.
“What Barstool Sports does in being such an extreme website, and trying to frame that extremism in the form of entertainment, is desensitize people to what’s wrong in society,’’ said Mahoney. “It’s billed as a website ‘for the common man, by the common man,’ but I would argue that most men in their daily lives would not find the sort of things promoted by Barstool Sports to be acceptable.’’
Portnoy insists the sexist comments are not his, but that of a character he plays. He likes to compare himself to Howard Stern in that regard.
But now that he’s pushing into his mid-30s, he admits to wondering how long he can keep making cracks about young college girls.
“There’s a sweet spot for writing this kind of stuff, age 28-32,’’ he said. “I’m on the downswing. I’m still thoroughly entertained, but we do need to think about finding a new Boston writer, a young guy. The hardest part is finding writers who can take something so outrageous and make it sound like they’re being serious.’’