Barstool Sports’ New Female CEO Wants You to Take Barstool Seriously

Erika Nardini says there's a lot of substance underneath the smut and 'smokeshows.'

Erika Nardini

Photo of Erika Nardini provided

Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy once published a post on his website titled, “Guess What? I’m Bringing Back The Word ‘C***.‘” But this week, he hired a woman to be the company’s top business executive.

It’s a seemingly contradictory time for Barstool Sports, which was acquired by the Chernin Group for a reported sum between $10 and $15 million in January. On one hand, the site’s lewd content is a big reason why it’s cultivated such an immensely loyal following. But on the other hand, with the company now immersed in a battle for respectability, using the c-word in a headline may not be the best way to go. Barstool must become a premier media brand without losing its soul—or in this case, photos of “Smokeshows” and other bikini-clad women.

That’s where new CEO Erika Nardini steps in. A longtime Barstool fan—”Stoolie” for short—she’s spent the last two decades working as an executive in the digital media field. Most recently, she’s served as the Chief Marketing Officer for AOL and president of the startup Bkstg, a platform that artists use to connect directly with their fans.

Nardini says the desire to work for Barstool first grabbed her last year amidst the interminable Deflategate saga. Few people set the narrative for New England more than Portnoy, who popularized the “Free Brady” slogan and was even arrested last spring for organizing a protest at NFL headquarters. The rhetoric riled up Nardini as a Patriots fan, but as a businessperson, Portnoy’s ability to monetize Deflategate—”Free Brady” shirts are on sale for just $25—was downright enthralling.

“That was the moment for me where I knew Barstool was different and had incredible potential,” Nardini says. “It was something I was interested in content-wise, and they served me an opportunity to buy something that became more of a content experience.”

Barstool’s growth is jaw-dropping. When it first launched in 2003, Portnoy would hand out the small black-and-white newspaper at subway stations throughout the city. It was largely a gambling rag back then, since Portnoy’s biggest sponsor was an online card room named PartyPoker.

These days, Barstool is perhaps the most recognizable brand in popular bro culture. As of early this year, the site was attracting more than 8 million unique visitors per month—a massive increase from the 1.4 million uniques they were bringing in as recently as five years ago. Its merchandise is everywhere, too, as college campuses across the country are inundated with red barstools elevated over the company’s signature blue backdrop.

With an audience like that, Nardini sees no reason why Barstool can’t just be a major player in the media field, but also be viewed legitimately.

“I think Barstool’s look and tone is a double-edged sword. It has engendered a very loyal audience, but it has also prevented Barstool from being taken as seriously as it should,” Nardini says. “Barstool, to me, is exceptionally formidable as a company, brand, and as a business. I don’t think a lot of people have taken the time to look beyond the girls, comedy, and snark to really look into that.”

But of course, there are hurdles that come with marketing a company that once posted nude pictures of Tom Brady’s baby. Those obstacles were apparent on the day of the sale, with the Cauldron publishing a piece that decried Barstool as a “misogynistic echo chamber” within hours of the acquisition announcement.

Portnoy has always batted down claims that Barstool’s tone is sexist. “We’re a comedy site and have made fun of every single race, religion, creed, and gender. We’ve made fun of it equally,” he told me earlier this year.

For her part, Nardini says there are times when some of the language on the site makes her quiver. But she believes Barstool is far more than smut, and can appeal to a wide swath of people.

“Barstool is not without cringeworthy headlines, that’s for sure,” Nardini says. “There’s a part of Barstool that causes someone to flinch. But I’m able to look at Barstool Sports in totality. By totality, I mean the business opportunity, the audience opportunity, and the brand opportunity. I believe, in totality, Barstool has very strong potential.”

There’s little doubt that Barstool’s crass tone strongly resonates with a large group of people—especially men—who are revolting against the politically correct establishment. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in some circles, Portnoy is the most influential figure in media.

Now Nardini’s job is to convince others to view the company similarly, all while keeping the brand intact that may have alienated them in the first place.