NO HEF: Barstool Sports founder and publisher David Portnoy, looking guileless.
PREENING LINGERIE MODELS! Hot chicks making out . . . with each other! General debauchery! Such was the advance billing for Barstool Sports’s second annual cover model of the year party, which went down at Boston’s Mansion nightclub last month.
Sadly, a prior commitment kept me away. But I figured Dave Portnoy, Barstool’s founder and publisher, would happily recreate the bacchanalia for me. Judging from photos of previous Barstool shindigs, Portnoy’s publication had transcended mere print status and become a kind of licentious lifestyle brand; I thought Portnoy would carry himself accordingly, like a low-rent Hugh Hefner or New England’s answer to Joe Francis.
Not so. Portnoy didn’t wear a smoking jacket to our interview; he didn’t have a bimbo on each arm; he didn’t smack the waitress’s butt and promise to make her a star. Beforehand, Portnoy had described himself as the most average-looking guy imaginable, and he was right: nothing about his face or physique or dress stood out.
His description of the previous night’s festivities, meanwhile, was laconic and wholly unsexy. (“We have the lingerie show, which is, I guess, seven to 10 girls in lingerie . . . I’d never seen one until we started doing it. They walk out in lingerie, like a fashion show.”) There were some good anecdotes, but they dealt with unexpected subjects: Portnoy busting some would-be thieves who were trying to make off with an assortment of cover-model posters, say (“I’m like, hey guys, we need those . . . and they’re like, . . . ‘You’re gay’ ”), or Portnoy’s mother yelling at him for keeping people waiting outside the Mansion, (“She’s like, ‘You have to let these people in.’ It’s like, Ma!”). Hef he ain’t.
Paging Rodney Dangerfield
Most members of the press have an abiding need for respect — from readers, from newsmakers, from competitors and colleagues. In the case of Portnoy and his colleagues, though, such respect is hard to come by. One of my Phoenix co-workers calls Barstool Sports “a publication with no discernible reason for existing.” When I asked Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, a favorite Barstool target, for his thoughts on the paper, his reply suggested that he’d never actually picked it up. (“I really don’t know what it is,” Shaughnessy told me.) Even Barstool’s writers seem vaguely ashamed by their affiliation: during a recent group interview, four of the paper’s editorial mainstays (Jamie Chisholm, Jerry Thornton, Pete Manzo, and Katie Cawley, author of Barstool’s “From Her Perspective” column) each asked that I not mention their day jobs.
Still, Barstool is growing — thriving, even. Which, given the paper’s humble origins, seems like a minor miracle. Flash back to 2003: recently fired from his sales job at a high-tech startup, Swampscott native and University of Michigan graduate David Portnoy is collecting unemployment checks and dreaming of entrepreneurial success. “I had every idea, from starting a used-furniture store for college kids — pick up, like, trashy couches and then put them in a warehouse and sell them for, like, ten cents — to starting a scouting agency for Division III colleges,” Portnoy told me. “I just went through a bunch of ideas, and I came up with this one.”
At the time, however, the premise for Barstool was radically different. In Portnoy’s words, the paper was a “four-page, black-and-white gambling rag,” one totally devoid of T&A. When the first issue was published, he recalled, “We hired Labor Ready — minimum-wage labor — to hand out the paper. Total disaster. We had ’em at every T stop, and we couldn’t manage them. These guys were drunk; they didn’t show up; they were throwing them in the trash.”
What followed sounds like a musical montage in an ’80s dramedy. When the next issue comes out two weeks later, Portnoy & Co. pass on Labor Ready and hire a local modeling agency to distribute the paper instead. One of the models tells Portnoy the paper is doomed; she later becomes his girlfriend. Men like getting their free paper from said models. One week, Portnoy sticks a cheesecake shot of Jessica Biel on the front cover for the hell of it. Barstool is so small that there are no repercussions; meanwhile, readers love it. More cover models follow, local girls who actually like the idea of their almost-nude image gazing out from drop boxes across the city; so do more readers and more advertisers. (Whether Barstool could have thrived without the current ascendance of raunch culture is an open question.) In 2006, Barstool turns a profit for the first time; circulation reaches 40,000; Web traffic at BarstoolSports.com — which, among other things, features mass quantities of scantily-clad girls/women and more professional-wrestling video than anyone really needs — tops 100,000 unique visitors monthly.
There’s an obvious lesson here for aspiring publishers everywhere — i.e., lots of guys will grab a free paper (and visit its Web site) if nubile, nearly naked females get prominent play. “It’s not rocket science,” says Portnoy. “I mean, we wouldn’t be here where we are now without the girls.”