(WARNING — EXPLICIT LANGUAGE THROUGHOUT)
The above exchange from “Die Hard 2,” with one notable exception, is largely how I have viewed Barstool Sports founder and now Barstool Sportsbook front man Dave Portnoy in the two years I have been with Better Collective and in the world of covering sports betting.
Dave Portnoy is, quite decidedly, not my kind of asshole.
I have not had direct interaction with him on any level — written letter, tweet, DM, email, phone interview, handshake, sit-down interview, anything. We have been in the same physical location, to the best of my knowledge, exactly once. That was at New Meadowlands in New Jersey during the second day of the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Portnoy and his cohorts had cordoned off a section of the sportsbook for their livestream, at which I remember rolling my eyes and offering this pithy post on Facebook:
My feelings on Portnoy aside, there are many aspects of his meteoric rise that command respect, whether it be begrudging or freely given, in this ecosphere. He, and by extension Barstool Sportsbook and its one-third acquirer Penn National Gaming, warrant the same effort of quality news coverage as all other known sportsbook operators in this space.
You don’t get where he is without being intelligent. You don’t get where he is without being savvy. You don’t get where he is without an elite level of hustle and work ethic. You don’t get where he is without a very nuanced understanding of who your audience is and how to use their loyalty to further your own goals and ambition.
You don’t get where he is without either a person or an entity with means — in this case, Penn National Gaming — being willing to hitch its star to you and ride it “to the moon.” And you don’t get where Portnoy is without being an asshole at times, or even sizable portions of the time.
She said (Business Insider), he said (Portnoy)
This is the hardest I’ve ever worked on a story, and I hope you’ll take some time to read it. Thank you to the team at @insider for their support, and of course, the brave sources who spoke to me over the last 8 months. https://t.co/nt4wmt6DFS
— Julia Black (@mjnblack) November 4, 2021
Barring deactivation of every form of social media shortly before 9 a.m. EDT on Thursday, chances are you had an opportunity to read the Business Insider story written by Julia Black about Portnoy, who labeled it a “hit piece” in a video posted to Twitter while responding with his version of events regarding sexual relations with two women.
The story has trended, been discussed, debated, dissected, and has progressed to the next news cycle, which is where this column enters the fray. I read Black’s article twice and watched Portnoy’s two-part video response he posted on Twitter twice. In the case of the latter, the first viewing was to transcribe the video. The second was to watch the video uninterrupted in an attempt to gain context.
There is nothing to be gained from rehashing the most lurid and, clearly, disturbing recounting of events in Black’s article from the two women who came forward. Portnoy showed self-awareness leading into his telling of the encounters, admitting they “are jarring and if I read them not knowing me, I’d be like, ‘This guy belongs behind bars, basically.’”
My Response To The Business Insider Hit Piece That Has Been 8 Months In The Making (Part 1/2) pic.twitter.com/gwrO07uIEE
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) November 4, 2021
There is also nothing to be gained parsing Portnoy’s recounting of events as he remembers them. There is no “A-ha!” moment in which a turn of phrase or key word sets his account collapsing on itself like a house of cards. Additionally, I am not a body language expert who can decipher a tell, even if there is one.
There are two things to note from Black’s article. The words “rape” or “raped” appear five times. It is written twice in the texts sent from the first woman to her friend and quoted twice from a 2010 blog post Portnoy wrote in defense of an Australian man acquitted on a rape charge after using a “skinny-jeans defense.” The fifth was in regard to a “rape jokes” phrase as part of a link to a 2017 article written about the fallout of ESPN canceling the Barstool Van Talk show after it was revealed Portnoy made misogynistic comments about ESPN studio host Sam Ponder in 2014.
The word “assault” used in context with “sexual assault” appears twice and nowhere else. The more important occasion comes from Black writing that the second woman “does not describe what happened to her as sexual assault, but said she was still deeply disturbed by the experience.”
Nowhere in the article do either Black or the women directly accuse Portnoy of rape, nor does Black label Portnoy a rapist. There are also no allegations in either woman’s account of sexual assault by Portnoy, nor any criminal charges related to sexual assault against Portnoy.
From an aesthetic standpoint, two areas to note from his video are a pair of clear edit points at approximately 4:00 and 8:37 in Portnoy’s longer first video. The audio also cuts out for a 26-second span from 7:10 to 7:36, during which four screenshots are shown of texts between Portnoy and the second woman who shared details of their sexual encounter in the article.
A stock plunge and cancel culture diversion
Just how hard is New York making it to run a digital sportsbook profitably? Pretty hard, says the head of Penn National and Barstool Sportsbook:https://t.co/8suPGoF5OH
— Gary Rotstein (@GaryRotstein) November 4, 2021
Had Portnoy limited himself solely to rebutting the two allegations presented in Business Insider, it may (bold and italics my emphasis) have prevented some of the 21.1% overall drop in trading Thursday to $57.40 per share that wiped out nearly $2.7 billion of Penn’s market cap. He was not the sole reason Penn stock had what was called the roughest day in the history of any gaming company on Wall Street, as the company badly missed revenue estimates when announcing figures for its third-quarter earnings call.
But when he made an overt effort to regain control of the narrative — the narrative of Dave Portnoy, Barstool founder — by lashing out at Black without referring to her by name and decrying cancel culture is where it all went sideways.
“It took her eight months,” he said, referring to the length of time Black spent working on the story. “I’ve been mostly single, till recently, for the past five years. [I’m] well known, target on my back, people fucking hate me — whether it’s because I interviewed Trump or I go on Tucker Carlson. The woke, cancel culture wants to cancel me and this is the next escalation and they’re like, ‘Oh he wrote a joke, a rape joke in 2010,’ which I wouldn’t do now. ‘He made a video at a porn convention. He must be a rapist.’ And let’s just dig up every rock.
“And I’m scared now. I’m scared because they’re asking for more. It’s like they’re asking the internet, ‘Tell us bad stories about Dave Portnoy.’ Well guess what? A lot of fucking people hate me.”
Here’s the problem with Portnoy’s complaint: He is TOO BIG (again, emphasis mine) to be canceled by cancel culture. There has been no tidal wave of backlash against him created by his previous statements and missteps to suggest that this self-perceived critical mass of consensus will rise up and cancel him as he purports to worry about.
Portnoy added, “With media and Business Insider, which doesn’t give a fuck about destroying lives or who they’re affecting right now or the reputation, it’s guilty until proven innocent.”
It can be argued Portnoy did not give that exact same fuck about potentially destroying lives when he suggested Ponder “sex it up and be slutty and not see some prude [expletive] jerk who everybody hates.”
Are his comments about Ponder on the level of being associated with sexual assault? No. Did those comments help foster an atmosphere of misogyny and “bro culture” that courses through the veins of Barstool’s fans to this day, even with Portnoy and those in public-facing positions largely abstaining from such talk? Yes.
It appears his fear of, in his words, “the new narrative, ‘Dave Portnoy is a rapist,'” comes from the foreign nature of having to repel an attack versus launching one. To use a phrase he is fond of: “Boom. Roasted.”
Time for an enema?
Portnoy was a plucky upstart, and he has every right to maintain that persona to further build the Barstool brand. But he and his brand have saturated social media to the point where there are enough people who support him and who are clearly willing and capable to shout down and/or outlast his critics. Portnoy worrying about cancel culture is more rallying cry to his Stoolies versus actual concern that he might actually be canceled.
Barstool Sportsbook and Penn National Gaming are mainstream sports betting brands based on the most important industry metrics available: handle and revenue. Portnoy knows his brand’s strengths and audience well enough to craft a message for social media that resonates far better than any 30-second spot in traditional media. That is his true calling card of success in this rapidly growing and highly competitive industry — he raises revenue margins unlike anyone else.
Unless he wants to willingly leave the stage, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Penn may have had a bad earnings quarter, but Portnoy, Barstool, and Penn have every opportunity to make that an aberration in three months’ time.
Portnoy is not the first, nor will he be the last, asshole to grace the sports betting landscape. But on occasion, almost every kind of asshole is well-served with an enema. It may simply be his time to have one in order to move forward both as a person and a business leader for his sake, Barstool’s, and Penn’s.