The Chernin Group, which holds a majority stake in the highly popular and hyper misogynistic sports site Barstool Sports, is exploring a sale of the site, according to a Nov. 1 report published by The Big Lead. The news is especially rich because a couple of months ago, Barstool’s employees were gloating about how they didn’t need a union, since their boss treated them so well and they were going to live forever. Whoops!
If the blue check mark brigade saw our health insurance they would have a meltdown. I worked on close to 100 different mid sized group health plans for a good time. I’ve never seen an employer offer what Barstool gives us. But keep the advice coming. Please.— Carl (@barstoolcarl) August 13, 2019
Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy downplayed a potential sale on his radio show Monday by saying that there have been talks for a while. (I independently reached out to him and CEO Erika Nardini for comment, but haven’t heard back.) But if discussions have persisted for this long, that means getting sold is a non-zero possibility, and the roughly 900 Erics and Mikes employed there (actually 180, as of August) should be prepared. Per TBL, the Chernin Group is trying to sell to “a gambling operator.” That’d make sense, as Barstool originally started out as a gambling newsletter in 2003, and invested in that direction this summer by hiring a FanDuel executive to build out that area. (It sold a controlling interest to the Chernin Group in 2016, and received a valuation around $100 million following a 2018 round of funding.)
Barstool’s coverage also includes sports, boobs, and memes that were funny three months ago, and it’s safe to infer that the employees at the site who don’t work on gambling content will be the most vulnerable if a sale goes through. Right now, without a union, the person advocating for all of them was the same guy who told his own employee that she’d be too ugly to be on camera in five years. Surely he’ll have his workers’ best interests at heart.
If you aren’t familiar with Portnoy, you’re lucky. His routine move is to say something gross, double down, then go on Fox News to have his balls massaged by a freak who’d be right at home in a Verhoeven movie. Over the years he’s been involved in dozens of humiliating public episodes, but one from August specifically sheds light on the kind of person he is: In response to a unionization effort by the sports site The Ringer, he said unions were for “pussies” and vowed to fire anyone at his company who tried to organize. Portnoy drew the attention of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the AFL-CIO in his news cycle, then appeared on his buddy Tucker Carlson’s show (Mark Steyn was that night’s guest host) to complain about how people were taking his anti-union remarks too seriously.
For some reason, as this meltdown occurred, Portnoy’s employees revealed themselves to be strangely indifferent about trying to protect their jobs. They ran through the typical anti-union excuses: Unions are cool, but wouldn’t work for us. We have it good now; why mess with that? People on the outside don’t understand how a union would mess with our meticulous workflow structure of arguing with each other on camera and reposting the work of others without credit. The company markets itself as a home for the average guy, but none of the tradition of working-class solidarity can be found there. It’s more like fratty individualism.
Just want to check in & double down on this for everyone crying with stories of heroes who quit their jobs in the face of oppression— KFC (@KFCBarstool) October 31, 2019
Your boss wanting to run ads & telling you what content to create in order to save a bankrupt company is not oppression. Thats just business. https://t.co/1soYxK2BhR
All those great perks you currently have at work, BarstoolMark? None of them are guaranteed. The Chernin Group could sell tomorrow, and they’d be gone at the drop of a curved-brim hat. The new boss could completely change employees’ jobs or lay them off. They’d have no recourse, and be on their asses, put in the position of trying to get another media job with nothing in their portfolio but typo-ridden blogs about hot moms who chug beer on Instagram.
It doesn’t have to be like this, though. There’s another option: Organize with your coworkers to earn a voice and not be treated like dirt. If layoffs come, at least there’s severance. If management wants to change the benefits, they can be forced to negotiate. Barstool has marketed the slogan “Saturdays are for the boys,” but the weekend they cherish so much exists solely because the labor unions they deride fought for it.
I made this pussy who works for me cry so now I call him Pussy. I bet @Aoc wants to coddle this pussy. I want to make him a man so he will not be a spineless pussy the rest of his life. Which way works? pic.twitter.com/EdvN8PRCcS— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) August 14, 2019
The blue checkmark and their weirdo friends are mad at me for saying I’d smash a Barstool Union. pic.twitter.com/j0V4OL0lsz— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) August 13, 2019
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I worked at Deadspin and was part of a digital media union including its sister sites. I wasn’t on the committee or in any special role, but I attended meetings like everyone else, witnessed its formation, and watched what workers can do when they band together. We argued for and earned benefits that tangibly improved the lives of employees, from its inception at what was formerly Gawker Media through its sale to the private equity vultures picking the bones of what’s now called G/O Media. Near the end of my time there, I saw firsthand that private equity is a relentless monstrosity that will consume anything it can, even if the property is profitable. A union might not be able to win every battle — no union can — but it sure as hell beats nothing.
Will any Barstool employee heed this warning? Probably not; they hate me. I reported on them at Deadspin the same way I reported on any media company’s screwups, and in response they created racist cartoons about me, while Portnoy sexually harassed my former coworker, never apologized, then froze like a deer in headlights when asked about it on camera. Separately, a reader found my girlfriend’s non-work information, then sent her a fake story about how the police were coming to arrest me because I was sexting an underage girl.
A union might not be able to win every battle — no union can — but it sure as hell beats nothing.
The last one happened hours after I had written about one of Barstool’s employees wearing blackface. Portnoy actively encourages his readers to go after anyone critical of him or the company, and wants to make them regret ever raising their concerns. Even the mildest remark sets him off. He’ll also quickly turn on his own people: When one of his employees posted a bad blog about Rihanna, Portnoy said he took it down because that employee wasn’t important enough to defend.
In this respect, Barstool’s no different than any other digital media outlet. Portnoy might be “cool” behind the scenes, but that coolness isn’t permanent, and having a good boss only goes so far. Ask BuzzFeed’s employees how they feel about Jonah Peretti now. It may require heretofore undiscovered reserves of self-awareness and humility, but Barstool’s workers should take a moment to be embarrassed about how pissy they were toward the idea of unionization, realize they actually have the power to do something together, then act before it’s too late.
Barstool Sports can claim I’m just jealous — of what, exactly? A 40-year-old with Adderall constipation? — or try to deflect with another racist joke, but this is the reality. Things may be peachy now, but the editorial boss has tossed his subordinates under the bus and he’s willing to do it again. There’s serious talk of a sale. The rest of the digital media industry is struggling. The shitstorm hasn’t reached land yet, but it’s coming.