Say what you will about Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, the man has a way with words. For instance, take a recent video he posted on Dec. 8, in which he discussed, among other items, how he’s soon bringing his talents to Michigan.
“I’m getting ready to go to Michigan,” he said. “When Michigan says, ‘hey we’re open for business,’ I’m bringing my green hammers there and we’re gonna start cracking skulls.”
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) December 8, 2020
Michigan — which will be the second state in which the Barstool Sportsbook app will go live — is not yet open for business. Regulators there expect to launch online sportsbooks by mid-January. And if the Barstool Sportsbook launch in Pennsylvania is any indication, Portnoy and his deep bench of Barstool dudes will be physically moving into the Wolverine State, betting on Pistons games, and, apparently, getting to cracking some skulls with oversize neon green hammers.
So yes. You might say the world of online sportsbook marketing probably didn’t see Portnoy (and his skull-cracking hammers) coming. Welcome bonuses and free bets are lovely come-ons — and Barstool has those, to be sure — but none of the other sportsbooks have anything quite like Portnoy.
Barstool does not = Portnoy
And while watchers of the sportsbook space know a thing or two about the business side of Portnoy’s role with the sportsbook and Penn National, to the public-at-large? It would certainly appear that Barstool = Portnoy, and thus Portnoy = Barstool Sportsbook.
But that’s not the case.
Portnoy is, in effect, a cheerleader for the company. A marketing ploy. The face of the operation. But not the guy making decisions behind the scenes. Not the owner of the sportsbook, not the CEO of the sportsbook, nothing. Fact is, if he were that guy, he wouldn’t be legally allowed to place bets on the app.
And as any Stoolie can tell you, Portnoy places bets. Big bets. And encourages his followers to hop along for the ride. In fact, the app regularly features “Bet with Dave” special odds boosts.
And while sportsbook advertising in America is now pulling in celebrity pitchmen — Jamie Foxx is the new face at BetMGM, Aaron Paul is breaking bad (beats) at Bet365 in New Jersey, CNBC’s Jim Cramer has had namesake odds boosts on DraftKings — Penn and Portnoy are in much different waters. No scripts, no rules, threats of cracked skulls with green hammers.
You almost have to wonder: Is this such a good idea? Is Portnoy good for Penn, today and in the future? And perhaps a bigger question: What do Portnoy’s continued antics — which, I’ll admit, charm me to no end — mean for the industry at large?
“Is the industry better off with Portnoy in it? Definitely,” said Matias Dorta of Roundhill Investments, home of the BETZ ETF. “It grows the market, brings more players into the space, and benefits everybody.”
Portnoy, Barstool draw attention to sport betting
— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) December 14, 2020
Dorta doesn’t limit his opinion to Portnoy; he believes having the entire Barstool Sports team on board is a boon to the sportsbook and the industry at large.
“Their reach really extends beyond the crowd that’s around Portnoy’s Twitter,” Dorta said. “They have a diverse audience, they have the ‘Chicks in the Office’ podcast. They have the ‘Call Her Daddy’ podcast which is routinely a Top 10 podcast in the nation. This is material that appeals to a completely different audience, and what ends up happening is Barstool is actually growing the sports betting market. People who would otherwise not be exposed to sports betting are exposed to betting through Barstool.”
And while Dorta is right — the Barstool brand extends well beyond Portnoy — the fact he’s front and center of the sportsbook means Penn National is betting the house on the Portnoy persona. This isn’t exactly breaking news, obviously, but again: Is this the best choice?
“Penn’s bet is that the perceived uniqueness of Barstool and Portnoy is what will allow them to stand out in a crowded, largely commodified field,” said Chris Grove, principal, head of sports & emerging verticals for Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. “That bet basically commits them to all of the risk that comes along with a persona-driven brand, including the risk that Portnoy alienates some potential customers or falls out of favor with the target audience.”
But as far as Grove is concerned, so far, so good.
“There’s nothing we see to suggest that those risks are manifesting in any material way for Penn at this point, but it’s early in the game for all involved,” he said.
What happens if people get sick of Portnoy?
That last bit — “early in the game” — is notable. After all, Portnoy’s persona — seemingly equal parts P.T. Barnum, Bugsy Siegel, and Jimmy the Greek — can be … a lot.
“Penn has very smart leadership and to the extent they can leverage Portnoy, they’ll do it,” said one notable gambling analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “And when you look at Barstool Sports, it acts as a funnel for the sportsbook. Barstool Sports is at the top for the funnel, bringing people in through all manner of engagement and spitting them out at the sportsbook app. And so what brought them in at very top is also what’s going to get them to bet.”
All good, right?
“There is a liability there, if any of the talent goes off the range,” the anonymous analyst said. “Depression, alcoholism, stress, divorce, who knows. Anything captured on film can pull the whole operation down with them.”
And as for Portnoy himself? The analyst isn’t convinced it’s a good long-term strategy for Penn.
“I ultimately think his schtick is going to run thin,” he said. “It might be awhile, but if you keep ‘betting with Dave’ and losing, you’re done. Losing isn’t fun in the long-term, and if people lose, they’ll attach Portnoy to that loss.”
Possibly notable to the above: Last Thursday night, Barstool Sportsbook had one of those “Bet With Dave” promos. The Patriots were playing the Rams, and the “Bet With Dave” special was the Patriots and the points at -106.
On the app’s regular NFL page? The Patriots were at … -105.
“No thanks,” the analyst noted.
Hello, Michigan! Could Barstool be the leader?
But Penn National obviously sees this differently. They see Portnoy as their golden goose, they see Portnoy capable of willing the Barstool Sportsbook app to the top of the heap. Betting against Portnoy has not exactly been a profitable strategy over the years, so there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be a profitable strategy.
And as for Barstool’s upcoming foray into Michigan? There probably hasn’t been a more intriguing online launch since New Jersey first opened its betting borders post-PASPA in June 2018. This will mark the first time Barstool is at the starting gate with the big boys, and if those first-month numbers show Barstool in the lead — a legitimate possibility, according to Dorta — then any questions raised here today concerning the viability of Portnoy as the pied piper for Penn National can be blasted to smithereens.
With a neon green hammer, naturally.