For those looking for signs of an impending apocalypse, Barstool Sports is coming to ESPN.
The Chernin Group-owned digital publisher, beloved by frat houses across the country, has signed a deal with ESPN for a weekly late-night talk show called “Barstool Van Talk.” At a time when big digital publishers are pursuing linear TV deals, with only a few having launched shows on the air so far, Barstool can now boast of having done two cable TV shows in 2017, including a Super Bowl-themed late-night program for Comedy Central earlier this year. The ESPN link-up is also a high-profile deal for Barstool, which has a smaller but highly loyal audience of self-described “stoolies.”
A half-hour show, “Barstool Rundown” will be hosted by popular Barstool personalities Dan Katz (known as “Big Cat”) and the anonymous PFT Commenter inside of a conversion van. Starting in New York, the van will travel across the country to different sports venues and college campuses. Each episode of the show will include a recap of the previous week in sports news, interviews and various comedy sketches.
“One of the things about Barstool is that we’re about sports, but we’re also about the things that make guys laugh — so the show will be about that, too,” said Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool Sports. “Plus, Barstool started because Dave [Portnoy] started handing out papers in an Astro van in Boston.”
“Barstool Van Talk” is the company’s second cable TV show this year. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Barstool produced four TV episodes of its daily talk show and podcast series “The Barstool Rundown” for Comedy Central. Viewership for those four episodes ranged between 217,000 viewers and 310,000 viewers, according to Nielsen data.
That showing was strong enough for Barstool to start pitching a late-night talk show program to cable networks, according to a Barstool-affiliated source. In addition to “Barstool Van Talk,” the publisher has two other TV projects “in the works,” this source said.
Nardini declined to comment on other TV projects Barstool might have in development. Awful Announcing and The Ringer first reported a potential Barstool-ESPN TV deal.
While 200,000-plus viewers don’t exactly equal a hit cable TV show, it’s double what Viceland, with 106,000 prime-time viewers (according to Nielsen), has been averaging this year.
Broadcasts of “The Barstool Rundown” also beat ratings for comparable sports talk programs such as Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed” at the time.
Starting on Oct. 18, “Barstool Van Talk” will air every Wednesday morning on ESPN2 at 1 a.m. Eastern time and run throughout the NFL season, including the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
With a 1 a.m. time slot, “Barstool Van Talk” could have a difficult time attracting viewers. One thing working in the company’s favor: the loyalty of Barstool’s core fan base. “The Barstool Rundown” attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers even though it aired at midnight Eastern time on Comedy Central. More recently, Barstool Sports convinced more than 12,500 people to pay $5 to watch an amateur boxing tournament.
“Most digital brands have sought scale over connections,” Nardini said. “We, as a company, are entirely about connections and actual engagement with our audience. So for any show that we do, we can bring in Barstool as a marketing platform and deliver an audience.”
It could serve ESPN well, too. The sports media giant has had an uneasy relationship with Barstool in the past, but recently has warmed up to the publisher and invited Barstool personalities, including the hosts of “Van Talk,” on “SportsCenter.”
“Barstool has a very passionate following with the types of viewers [ESPN] desperately needs — 20-something sports fans who are abandoning ESPN in favor of sites like Barstool,” said Alan Wolk, TV industry analyst for TVRev. “Getting Barstool on to ESPN is going to seem like a validation of sorts for that demographic, along with the sense that ESPN is starting to ‘get it.’”
Barstool is partnering with Sony Pictures Television-owned production studio Embassy Row to make “Barstool Van Talk.” Embassy Row has some experience with shooting talk shows set inside moving vehicles, as it’s the production company behind Jerry Seinfeld’s web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Barstool video production staffer Henry Lockwood will serve as the publisher’s in-house producer on the show.
“What we’re starting to work toward is having different types of production relationships, where in some instances we might be the production company, and in other instances we’re working with third-party production companies,” Nardini said.