Is This Really Boston’s Next Media Mogul?
Yes. His name is David Portnoy. And he’s building an empire – one blog post (and one babe) at a time.
He looks like — of all people — Mark Zuckerberg.
He’s beefier, but he has the same short, curly hair and set of round blue eyes. Even the nose is familiar. Softly anchoring the middle of the face, it’s his most prominent feature. And just like the world’s most famous young billionaire, David Portnoy is rarely seen in anything other than his signature outfit: jeans, hoodie, sneakers.
Then there’s the fact that he is obsessed with a website that, over the past several years, he’s built from nothing: Barstool Sports, a crudely designed, widely read (and highly readable) “sports/smut” site that can only be described as the bastard child of ESPN and Girls Gone Wild.
On a typical day, Portnoy wakes up at 9, gets a cup of coffee, and walks the three blocks to his office in Milton. Once there, he’ll sit down in front of his laptop and proceed to work for the next 10 hours. When the sun sets, he retraces his steps back home, eats dinner, and works another five hours. On Saturdays, he takes it relatively easy, but on Sundays, he’s on for another five or six hours.
Save for the “Barstool Sports” sign scribbled on a piece of paper and taped to the mailbox, Barstool HQ could be mistaken for the office of a suburban dentist. Inside, it’s another story. On Portnoy’s desk, a Dell laptop sits next to a scattered pile of blank business checks, a Dyson bladeless fan, and a large cup of coffee, one of four he’ll suck down on the average day. A football and a plastic sword lie on the floor, and posters of bikinied girls lean against the walls, half-naked sentries standing watch over the operation.
On the day I visit, Jenna Mourey, one of the company’s five full-time employees, has brought her two tiny dogs — Mr. Marbles and Kermie — to keep the ‘Stool crew company. When I pick up Kermie, Portnoy suddenly appears in the doorway to deliver some bad news.
“He just shit,” he says, pointing to the dog. “Just a second ago. In my office.”
Mourey shrieks: “Kermie!”
A petite Suffolk University grad with a master’s in sports psychology from BU and a pink streak running through her shoulder-length platinum hair, Mourey has been a full-time writer for the website since this spring. “Bad dog!” she scolds Kermie.
Portnoy points to the spot on the carpet and opens the back door. “It smells awful,” he says.
So Microsoft, it ain’t. But since its launch a few years ago, Barstool has become one of the most popular and talked-about blogs in the country. These days, it sees 1.4 million unique visitors a month, while its subsidiary websites — Barstool Sports NYC and StoolLaLa.com — bring in an additional million, numbers that in total surpass the websites of national magazines such as Rolling Stone, Glamour, and GQ. Just as impressive as Barstool’s ability to attract readers is its ability to convert that traffic into actual profits. Indeed, if Portnoy has anything to say about it, the garbage-strewn, dog-shit-scented office in Milton will someday be the unlikely seat of a multimedia empire. And sitting at the throne will be one of the city’s youngest — and most offensive — entrepreneurs, a 33-year-old Swampscott native best known by his self-styled online handle: “El Presidente.”
LEDGE KITCHEN AND DRINKS is a three-minute walk from Portnoy’s office. There’s a crowd on this Thursday night, and it’s loud. Maybe it’s a jump-start to the upcoming Halloween weekend. Maybe it’s the warm weather. When I arrive, Portnoy is standing at the bar wearing what amounts to his version of formalwear: pressed white shirt, pastel plaid shorts, flip-flops.
I order a Sam Adams. He says he hates Sam Adams. We talk Halloween costumes: He’s going as Bodhi, the mystical surfer/badass bank robber portrayed by Patrick Swayze in the movie Point Break. “You’d never believe how hard it is to find a wetsuit in Boston,” he says.
In person, Portnoy is the antithesis of his online persona. He’s urbane, polite, and easygoing. He offers up a detailed description (at least for a dude) of his wedding in Newport a year ago, and of how he enjoys weekly dinner-and-a-movie dates with his wife, Renee. He talks about growing up on the North Shore, how he was an average athlete who played baseball at Swampscott High. And how, after getting an education degree from the University of Michigan (“They won a national title [in football] when I was there”) he moved back to Boston to work in sales.
He orders the steak tips. He wanted the burger, but decided against it because it’s too messy to eat in front of someone he “doesn’t really know.” On the flat-screen above, Bruins center Tyler Seguin scores against the Maple Leafs. “I haven’t been to a Bruins game in years,” he says. He doesn’t really go to too many Sox games, either. But on the occasion he does, he gets swarmed by fans. “It takes me 45 minutes to walk down Lansdowne Street — so many people want to stop and take a picture with me.”
After ordering a Coors Light, Portnoy ruminates on one of Barstool Sports’s better-known contributions to American culture: “I invented the ‘Guess That Ass’ game,” he says, shaking his head. The daily trivia contest, a staple of the Barstool canon, is brilliant in its simplicity: El Prez crops a photo of a female celebrity so that only her backside is revealed. Readers then click on the photo to find out to whom said ass belongs. Tonight, his incredulity is directed at celebrity-gossip website TMZ, which has taken to offering a “Guess the Badonkadonk!” feature on a semiregular basis.
“We’ve been doing it for years,” Portnoy says.
As we’re getting ready to leave, two twentysomething guys in baseball hats enter the room. Portnoy doesn’t know them, but as the two slide to the end of the bar, they chime in unison: “Hey, Prez.”
THE STATED CREDO of Barstool Sports is “By the Common Man, for the Common Man,” and the website owes its existence to a particularly common urge: the desire to work for oneself.
After returning to Boston in 1999, Portnoy went to work for Yankee Group, a local technology market research firm, selling the company’s services to telecom customers. Even before his corporate gig, though, he knew he wanted to strike out on his own. His instinct was to find something in the gaming industry because, well, he liked to place bets. So he started cold-calling the HR and marketing departments at various Vegas casinos until a few execs agreed to meet with him. But when he finally flew out to Sin City, he was uniformly told that it was difficult to get into the business without any experience; unless he was willing spend a couple of years as a dealer, he should try something else. The job research wasn’t a total bust, though. A couple of executives from offshore casinos told Portnoy that if he ever created some sort of gaming publication, they’d advertise in it.
So that’s what he did. By August 2003, Portnoy had left Yankee Group and had published his first issue of Barstool Sports, a four-page black-and-white newspaper that featured gambling spreads, sports schedules, and fantasy-league stats. It was distributed at T stops around Greater Boston, and offered neither commentary nor cleavage. Because of the paper’s gambling-related content, PartyPoker, then the largest online card room in the world, threw enough advertising money at it to float the venture for its first year. “PartyPoker gave us our sea legs,” Portnoy says. He didn’t really have a long-term plan, but he also had almost no expenses — he had temporarily moved back in with his parents — and PartyPoker’s cash had bought him enough time to figure things out.
Unlike a lot of people in media — or at least people in old media — Portnoy doesn’t have any romantic notions about the business he’s chosen. It isn’t a calling or a passion or some sort of sacred trust. It’s a way to create something of value — while having a good time. “I always looked at it from a business perspective, like, How can this company make money?” he says.
After he launched the print version of Barstool Sports, he found that big companies weren’t willing to spend their advertising dollars on a publication devoted solely to sports, so he decided to employ the oldest sales gimmick in the universe — eye candy — by putting a picture of Jessica Biel on the cover. It worked, even if it was a blatant copyright violation. Soon after, a Boston photographer who did some work for Barstool Sports asked Portnoy if he’d ever thought about putting a local girl on the cover — a potentially buzz-creating move that would have the advantage of being legal. Portnoy took his advice, and the response was immediate. “From that day, the paper always had a local girl on the cover,” he says. And with the new packaging, advertisers both national (Bud Light, Miller Lite) and local (the Lyons Group, the Briar Group) wanted a piece.
Early on, Portnoy registered the official BarstoolSports.com domain name. “I figured I should have a website, because that’s what everybody was doing,” he says. Still, it was three years before the site went live, and the first version was almost comically simple. It featured nothing but PDFs of the print version’s latest issue. Before long, a Barstool fan named Ian White, who worked at a Web design firm in New York City, reached out to Portnoy. “If I build you something, where you can just cut and paste content, would you use it?” White asked. Barstool Sports as people know it today was born.
That website is basically a virtual frat house, a place of uncensored, intemperate, often sexist stream-of-consciousness chatter among relatively well-educated 25-year-old guys. The writing is vulgar, lowbrow, over the top, and full of expletives. It can also be oddly addictive, with one sophomoric headline (“Burning Question #24 Answered: Who Wins a Fight Between a Grown Woman and a Midget”) followed by another (“No Big Deal…Just a Huge Ass Mysterious Missile Spotted Off the Coast of California”). “People would probably disagree, but I think we invented a genre of website that is sports/smut,” says Portnoy.
The site’s sports coverage — ostensibly its area of expertise — is a direct reflection of the office water-cooler sensibility. In the Barstool universe, Shaq’s free-throw percentage is far less important than how the Celtics center dressed up like “Shaquita” for Halloween, or how Steven Tyler — and not longtime stalwart Rene Rancourt — sang the national anthem at the Bruins home opener. Regular readers check in to find out the latest on Tom Brady’s hair, not his arm. “Trust me, I know our writing isn’t good. We’ll never be able to write like [ESPN.com’s “Sports Guy” columnist] Bill Simmons,” Portnoy says. “But Bill Simmons will never be able to do what we do, either.”
Portnoy, or at least his alter ego, is one of the biggest draws of the site, and he is the first to admit that El Prez is an uncouth and chauvinistic character, one who objectifies women, ridicules his readers, refers to his interns as “slaves,” and tells visitors to “Keep Reading Bitches.”
The other draw is, of course, the pictures of women. Lots and lots of women, usually displayed in various stages of undress. Each morning, Portnoy posts photos of an up-and-coming actress or model under the tag line “Wake Up with…” In the afternoon, another girl gallery is posted, this time featuring one local “smokeshow,” i.e., a girl who’s “smoking” hot. To decide who makes the cut, El Prez wades through 20 to 30 e-mail nominations a day from college kids all around New England; self-nominations are almost as common as referrals. Once Portnoy settles on a winner, he gets her permission to post several photos, which are usually pulled from the woman’s Facebook page. Kelly from UNH. Marika from Brown. Hannah from Simmons. Enlightened? No. Effective? Yes.
The smokeshows have become the signature feature of Barstool Sports, a brand-name product. “I’d say he’s definitely cornered the market on smokeshows,” says A. J. Daulerio, editor of Deadspin, one of the most popular sports websites in the country. The scantily clad coeds are both the gateway drug to Barstool Sports and a key component of Portnoy’s expansion plans. It’s easy to picture Lauren from OSU, or Julie from FSU, or Shannon from Cal anchoring a Barstool Sports site in Columbus, Tallahassee, or Berkeley.
Yet the bulk — and the heart — of Barstool isn’t about the sports or girls. “It’s the stuff you don’t find anywhere else,” Portnoy explains. About half of the blog posts come from reader e-mails containing viral videos or photos; the other half are found by scouring the Web for anything funny, bizarre, or outrageous. “There are a million stories to cover every day,” says Keith Markovich, one of Portnoy’s writers in New York City. “It’s just a matter of picking the right one.”
Take, for instance, the recently posted photo of an 800-pound grizzly bear chasing after a 1,600-pound injured buffalo on a road in Yellowstone National Park. Barstool’s treatment? “This Bison Is a Gigantic Pussy.” The photo itself is arresting: an image of two beasts hauling ass down a stretch of pavement — with the smaller animal chasing after the larger. But in the hands of Barstool readers, it becomes something else. One reader offered analysis: “Bison never standed [sic] a chance. No lateral mobility, no quickness to the attack.” Another commenter had a recommendation: “Save this for when the B’s play the Sabres.” Within 48 hours, the item had garnered 120 Facebook shares and two dozen comments.
Ultimately, though, the key to Barstool’s success has been its willingness to evolve. In a span of seven years, Portnoy has built a website, dropped the gambling coverage, run more and more galleries of women, sold merchandise, and organized events such as concerts and contests. “There isn’t something we won’t try or do. We’ve always had money to do stuff — but it’s always, like, Where do you put it? How do you spend it?” he says. “We see where the tide is going and we try to go there quickly.”
Which explains how he figured out how to monetize a website, too. One of the worst-kept secrets in the media world is that many advertisers are desperate to be online-but have no idea what they want from online advertising. Part of the problem is that when it comes to the Web, the most effective ads aren’t ads; they’re pop-culture phenomena that just so happen to sell a product (think: Old Spice guy, E*Trade baby, Budweiser’s best commercials). Portnoy intuitively understands this, which is why Barstool’s promotions can be as entertaining as its posts. These campaigns help advertisers, sure, but they are also conspicuously in line with the ‘Stoolie ethos. That’s how Narragansett Beer’s “Search for New England’s Best ‘Can'” came to be, for example, or Miltons department stores’ “Pimp My Look” contest.
The revenue from those campaigns allowed Portnoy to launch a Barstool Sports.com last year in New York City, and he’d someday like to have outposts in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The only thing holding him back, he says, is time and talent. When he was looking for writers for the New York version of Barstool Sports, he decided to hold a contest: 500 people applied for two jobs, and Portnoy ultimately hired 25-year-old Kevin Clancy, who left a desk job in finance, and Markovich, who passed up going to journalism grad school because “blogging for El Prez sounded like way more fun.” Barstool New York’s traffic is about half of Boston’s. “We knew New York City would be a much bigger challenge, but it’s also a much bigger opportunity,” says Clancy. “If we can conquer New York, it’s going to be 10 times as big as Boston’s.”
Depending on which numbers you look at, the value of Barstool Sports is anywhere from $220,000 to $900,000. Impressive, but nowhere near that of anything in the Gawker Media stable of properties (which includes Deadspin), and it’s unclear how much El Prez is taking in. Maybe he doesn’t even really know. “Our revenue is all over the place — it comes and it goes,” he says. “Our books are a mess.” This much is known: His five employees do not yet get benefits (Portnoy hopes to offer them this spring, he says), but the company was able to front at least $120,000 for Barstool-sponsored events this year. It has also been doing a brisk business selling merchandise. In October, one T-shirt netted the company $50,000 in three weeks. On a personal level, El Prez seems to be doing okay. His wife wears a sparkling two-carat engagement ring, and the newlyweds just bought a 2010 Audi Quattro.
The most important measure of the company’s success, though, is the traffic numbers, which continue to rise dramatically. In 2006 BarstoolSports .com was seeing about 100,000 unique visitors monthly. Since then, the audience has been growing at a compound rate of 86 percent year over year. Today, the Boston site attracts 1.4 million unique visitors a month. Such growth has earned Portnoy notice from large media corporations. Recently, the Philadelphia-based entertainment behemoth Comcast approached Portnoy to discuss the future of the site. For such companies, acquiring a niche-market blog — with a distinct brand, fanatical readers, a built-in audience, established traffic, and a platform to expand into other cities — is often cheaper and easier than starting one from scratch. Portnoy is not philosophically opposed to selling out. “I’d sell it in a heartbeat if someone offered me $10 million,” he says.
IT’S MISCHIEF NIGHT, the night before Halloween, and the line to get into the sixth annual Barstool Sports Wicked Halloween Party at the Harp near TD Garden is 50 people deep. Earlier in the day, El Prez warned ‘Stoolies to get there early — “it’s going to fill up fast” — and by 8:30 p.m., the place is packed with an army of costumed, well-lubricated college kids. Over the course of the night, at least 1,000 additional ‘Stoolies will show up — and get turned away — because the Harp hit its capacity of 700 people.
Inside, Portnoy can hardly make his way through the crowd. A gaggle of girls approach him and start to chat about their costumes. Before they can finish, three ‘Stoolies lean in with their hands out. “Hey, Prez, great to meet you!” they yell, with the sort of excitement usually reserved for meeting the actual president. A group behind them is waiting to take a picture.
“I’m bigger than the Beatles!” Portnoy yells at me.
While I’m waiting in line for the restroom, one girl shares that she’s visiting from Connecticut. “My boyfriend is a big fan of Barstool. He’s been reading it for years,” she says, blinking blankly through her purple spider eyelashes.
On the stage, Paul Gulczynski, the site’s sales rep, is dressed up as Ben Roethlisberger and wearing one of the company’s most tasteless — and popular — pieces of merchandise: A black-and-gold T-shirt displaying the number 7 surrounded by the words “Throwing Picks, Assaulting Chicks.”
Close to midnight, it’s time to go. As I leave, I check out the line of twentysomethings hugging the wall outside the bar. Only one thing has changed since I arrived. It’s grown longer.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2010/11/david-portnoy-profile-is-this-really-bostons-next-media-mogul/