The Man Behind the 'Bible of Bro Culture'

There have been other crossover celebrity bloggers, of course--gossip gurus Perez Hilton and Harvey Levin of TMZ spring to mind--but Portnoy's entrepreneurial ambitions and everyman accessibility set him apart. Arguably the closest point of comparison is his Brady-gate nemesis Howard Stern: Both are provocateurs celebrating and satirizing the male id run amok. And like Stern, Portnoy has a fervent cult following among blue-collar, Joe Sixpack-types alienated by the polish and platitudes of the media powers that be. Also like Stern, Portnoy is a master at generating memes--at this year's PGA Championship, "Viva La Stool!" joined Stern fan staple "Baba Booey!" among the shouts originating from spectators lining the gallery.

Portnoy's Stern-like capacity for identifying and nurturing raw talent is evident. In addition to star protégés like KFC and Big Cat, the fan-favorite blogger who spearheads Barstool Chicago, Portnoy in 2010 discovered Jenna Mourey, aka Jenna Marbles--a Boston University sports-psychology student juggling a handful of odd jobs--and put her in charge of StoolLaLa, a short-lived spinoff site targeting female readers. Marbles and Portnoy parted ways in spring 2011, less than a year after her YouTube video "How to trick people into thinking you're good looking" went viral. Fast-forward to mid-2013, and Marbles' YouTube channel boasts more than 1.2 billion views and a subscriber base eclipsing 10 million, making it the fifth most-subscribed channel across the YouTube platform.

Portnoy's complaint: Marbles has not given Barstool Sports proper credit for launching her career. An April New York Times profile titled "The Woman with 1 Billion Clicks, Jenna Marbles" did not even cite Barstool by name.

"She told People magazine she fell into making YouTubes. Actually, no, you were working at a tanning salon and I hired you. That's how you started," Portnoy vents. "She thanked me once. She made a YouTube that explained her life. She said she was doing basically nothing, and I hired her and taught her everything about what she's doing now. I've hired one girl in 10 years, and it was her. She had something, but I wasn't able to harness it properly. I couldn't get her to understand it's a business. We never could get eye-to-eye." (Marbles did not respond to requests for comment.)

Another Portnoy find: Boston rapper Sammy Adams--the headlining act on the first Barstool campus concert tour, 2010's Stoolapalooza--who subsequently signed to RCA Records, scored a top 40 hit with the single "Only One" and appeared as himself on the CW Network prime-time soap 90210.

"The college tour was one of the first eye-opening moments," Portnoy says. "We had never been to a college campus before, and it was like the Beatles showed up. People had Barstool signs in the windows, and they were rushing at the buses. That's when I knew we had another way to make money."

Barstool Sports' Purple Starfish Productions offshoot, led by longtime staffer Paul Gulczynski (better known to readers as "Sales Guy"), now books branded concerts at clubs across the U.S., targeting off-campus sites near universities where inbound e-mail traffic indicates strongholds of Barstool fandom. At Purple Starfish's Blackout parties, audiences are encouraged to wear white to complement the signature black-light effects, while Foam events drop foam and froth onto the crowds below. A nationwide toga party tour is on tap for this fall and will keep some staffers on the road for close to 100 consecutive days.

During the academic year, Purple Starfish mounts a minimum of two concerts per week, routinely selling out venues up to 5,000 capacity. "The concerts sell themselves. They're as much about the crowd as they are the talent playing--it's like the world's biggest house party," Gulczynski says. "My biggest hurdle is getting venues to sign off. Once they have us, it's unanimously, 'Come back. You guys are a delight to work with, and the kids were all great.'"

Sales of concert tickets and branded merchandise--T-shirts, hats, stickers and flags--run roughly equivalent to advertising proceeds, a testament to the popularity of the Barstool brand but also a byproduct of the company's ongoing struggle to communicate its appeal to marketers.

"The greatest thing that Barstool has is influence," says Louis Roberts, a Barstool sales representative. "If Dave or one of the writers write something, the readers listen. That's what I sell: I tell [advertisers], 'You're not just buying the digital space. You're buying a branding deal. You're getting the best of both worlds.' It's just tough trying to explain that to people. I don't know why no one's figured it out. In my opinion, we should be making a lot more money than we are."

(Portnoy declined to disclose revenue: "I think revealing how well we do or how well we don't do can only hurt," he explains. "People see my lifestyle and know it's changing for the better, but I've never revealed real numbers.")

Portnoy refuses to jump through any hoops. "We do not play nice with media agencies. We will not do it. I am not going to buy you lunch to help you do your job," he insists. "The best way we'd work is having five to seven advertisers who get us and give us the majority of their budget, whether it's Axe or Trojan--people who are wasting money all over the place. We'd kill it for them. We'd murder it. But they don't want to talk about it. So we run our business with me not depending on ads. If we get them, it's additional revenue. If not, we make money directly from the people who read us, by selling shirts and doing concerts and events."

If and when the situation changes, it will be because advertisers have finally come around to Barstool Sports, not vice versa. "I have always said I'll walk away before compromising the brand. Unless I sell it for a billion dollars or enough where I never have to work again--then you can do what you want," Portnoy laughs. "But until that happens, we're going to run it the way people expect and the way that's gotten us to this point."

Chicago-based writer Jason Ankeny is the executive editor of Fiercemobile content, a daily electronic newsletter dedicated to mobile media, applications and marketing.

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This article was originally published in the November 2013 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Agent Provocateur.

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