20 February 2023 |

From Train Stops and Bar Tops to a $388M Acquisition

By Daniel Murray

The newspaper, an old relic, foreign to the children of the digital age who scroll on TikTok, is surprisingly the humble beginning of one of today’s most relevant brands.

It started on the streets of Boston. 

The year was 2003, ESPN and Sports Illustrated (SI) were the kings of sports media, and 26-year-old Dave Portnoy was riding around at 4am distributing newspapers in his Astrovan.

Yes, today’s lesson is all about the role that scrappy Marketing and personal branding played in the $388M acquisition of Barstool Sports. 

Little did ESPN and SI know, Dave Portnoy would be the unsung media personality that forced the ENTIRE industry to shift.

ESPN and Sports Illustrated were the highly regarded sports magazines that hired full-time writers from the most esteemed journalism schools in the country.

A lot of descriptive words right there, but you get my point. If you weren’t a journalist, you weren’t writing for them.

That was the norm at the time. Journalists were buttoned-up and slower in their processes.

Then came Barstool Sports. 

Working with no budget, Portnoy wrote under pseudonyms and had his childhood friends write in the newspaper for free.

Portnoy would drive around for 48 hours at a time, putting the newspapers in news racks and bars.

And when he wasn’t in his van, Dave was standing in the subway or at train stops handing out his newspaper like his life depended on it, because it did.

Portnoy was using one of the most underrated Marketing strategies out there: just getting it done.

But he also knew exactly who and where to target his customers. Initially a sports betting newsletter, Barstool had a heavy presence in Sports Bars and around sporting events.

Barstool identified their niche and built authority within it. 

Sports Media has seen many changes since 2003, but none being more unexpected than Barstool Sports leading the industry 20 years later.

A collection of rag-tag Bostonians with ZERO experience writing in a published newspaper turned to blogging in order to hit their stride.

Now in 2023, Barstool has blossomed into a media company that many are trying to emulate.

What was the catalyst?

Empowering their employees.

Barstool Sports leaned into the personalities of their bloggers, with each carving out a following unique to themselves. 

While other sports journalists’ work was tied directly to the larger media publication, Barstool bloggers each grew their own social media profiles in tandem with blogging.

Cue the ~personal branding~ LinkedIn posts.

With over 120 bloggers writing about anything from pizza to football to your fav tv shows, Barstool is compiling an artillery of bloggers each with influence within their respective niches.

For a Sports Media company to become a thought leader in the world of pizza would seem nearly impossible.

But not when your employees are building their own personal brands.

Dave Portnoy began posting pizza reviews on his personal social media back in 2017. 

Fast forward 6 years and 1,000 pizza reviews later, Barstool launched their own frozen pizza brand that sold 250k pies in its launch.

The moral of the story?

Start posting about pizza and you’ll be goo- JK.

Personal brands are a more intimate way to connect with your customers, stay top of mind, and have multiple touch points that build on your brand awareness.

And boy has this skyrocketed Barstool’s brand awareness.

Barstool content was viewed over 27 BILLION times last year, their podcasts were streamed 30,000,000+ times per month, and they just completed a 100% sale to Penn National Gaming for $388M.

A wild ride, for a wild company, showing us Marketers the value of personal branding and determination to make it work.