Becoming a Barstool Athlete: Is the Risk Worth the Reward?
In June 2021, the NCAA’s introduction of a new name, image and likeness (NIL) policy changed a once-formidable landscape for college athletes into one that presents a wealth of financial opportunity. But as with any change that seems positive at first glance, the other side of the policy’s coin exposes impressionable young athletes (many of whom are still teenagers) to money-hungry companies who can capitalize on their naiveness. When Barstool Sports owner David Portnoy revealed his Barstool Athlete program shortly after the announcement of the new NIL policy, he was proud to admit it seemed to be lacking a certain thoroughness. “No thought put into it. No clue what we were doing,” he states in a tweet from July. But the sentiment was still well-intentioned, with a desire to help college athletes gain recognition.
Beyond the absence of a proper business plan, another red flag is the lack of selection process involved in becoming a Barstool athlete. Once again, it was a flaw acknowledged by Portnoy, who said “if you play D1 sports, and you blink at me, I’ll sign you”. The application process (open to all divisions of college athletes, by the way), is a bare bones information plug-in: name, school, contact info, sport, and social media handle. Fine print requires the athlete to list themselves as a “Barstool Athlete” in their social media bio and submit a picture of themselves playing their respective sport. Not much has changed in the 4 months since the unveiling of Barstool Athletes. It remains to be seen exactly what either side is getting from the deal. Beyond free Barstool merchandise, there’s been no further discussion on whether Barstool Athletes will receive any other type of compensation for being a part of the initiative. Additionally, there’s been no mention of how these athletes are supposed to promote Barstool on their end. What’s most concerning about the program relates back to the idea that these athletes are really just kids, dazzled by a new opportunity to gain clout via association with perhaps the most well-known sports media company in the world. A more informed decision maker would realize it’s also an association with one of the most controversial sports media companies in the world. Oh, and they also make a considerable amount of their profit off of gambling and sports betting-conduct the NIL laws specifically prohibit. Portnoy has come under fire for normalizing rape culture, using racial slurs, and sexual harassment in the workplace, to name a few. And he doesn’t apologize for any of it: “I’m uncancelable. I’m big. You’re little. I cancel you.” But all of this is not to say the Barstool Athlete program cannot be successful. Because despite all this, the bandwagon still continues to grow. Barstool Athletes could first benefit from a program director. Preferably a face recognizable to athletes (perhaps a professional athlete, or a person involved in the business side of the sports world), and someone with a bit of a better reputation than Portnoy. Maintaining a squeaky-clean program image is crucial for getting school compliance officers on board as well.
Most importantly, Barstool needs a clear-cut plan that’s transparent on how each side will benefit. The NIL landscape will continue to grow, and it’s great that Barstool is ahead of the game, but they need a stronger sense of direction in order to avoid fizzling out due to unsatisfied participants. Incentivizing athletes is a good place to start, but a t-shirt only goes so far. What these athletes really want is notoriety and the chance to make money. And what Barstool really wants is to continue to get their name out there. So what if the athlete who sold the most barstool merch to their campus weekly got their highlight reel featured on the Barstool Instagram account (an account with 12.2 million followers)? Or what if Barstool took a more collaborative approach, and paid the athletes to be a part of their advertising campaigns or featured guests on their podcasts? The opportunities presented by NIL are about to take center stage, and Barstool could have front row seat. All it takes is a little creativity.
*Sarah Mullahy is a Suffolk University Law School, a J.D. Candidate, '23 and a current intern at Wilmelsport.*