Barstool Sports Has Signed Thousands of College Athletes to NIL Partnerships, But No One (Not Even Barstool) Seems to Know the Plan
Barstool Sports, the controversial sports media company that recently branched into gambling, has created a new way for college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) by becoming “Barstool Athletes.”
Barstool founder Dave Portnoy posted on Instagram in July that college athletes could sign on as a Barstool athlete and, in exchange, receive Barstool-branded merchandise. Other than that, no one—not even Portnoy—seems to know what exactly these partnerships will entail:
Barstool Athletes Inc is the most barstool thing ever. No thought put into it. No clue what we were doing. And 2 hours later the most powerful student athlete organization in the country. Still no clue what’s happening. #fortheplayers #barstoolathlete
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) July 1, 2021
The Barstool Athletics Instagram page is full of more than 4,000 collegiate athletes in sports such as baseball, football, track and field, softball, and beyond.
Student-athletes can simply apply for “Barstool Athlete” status on Barstool Sports’ site. If they’re approved, they need to include “Barstool Athlete” in their social media bios, and give permission to Barstool to use their name, image and likeness on any Barstool platform or channel.
— Barstool Athletics (@stoolathletics) August 20, 2021
Student-athletes who play sports that don’t get as much television coverage are happy to be able to gain some notoriety.
“I think it’s really cool of them to be accepting everyone from different schools,” Montana State University track and field athlete Elena Carter told the Montana Standard. “It doesn’t have to be super insane high-level DI athletes. They’re giving everyone a chance.”
But a chance at what, exactly, is still kind of unclear.
“Aside from a promise of free Barstool-branded merchandise, that’s about all the trio of athletes know about their affiliation with the company so far,” Montana Standard writer Parker Cotton wrote. “None of them have received more information about if or how they are supposed to promote Barstool on their social feeds.”
Barstool’s fine print says that affiliated athletes are not permitted to use their NIL to “endorse any prohibited conduct, such as gambling, sports betting, drugs or alcohol.”
It's worth noting that Barstool recently inked a lucrative deal with Penn National Gaming, and in its infancy hosted “Barstool Blackout” events near college campuses.
Emergency Press Conference - I just started a NCAA marketing firm and landed our first athlete. Introducing Adelaide Halverson. Welcome to the fam!
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) July 1, 2021
The question is, will Barstool hold itself to the same standard, or are those affiliated athletes potentially signing off for a partnership that puts their eligibility in danger?
“I was basically telling our kids, as of right now, ‘Don't necessarily think that there's anything against Barstool as long as you keep in mind that you shouldn't be doing anything or you shouldn't be letting them use your name, image or likeness when it does come to sports wagering, alcohol, anything along that line,’” Montana State assistant athletic director for compliance Sean Dotson told Montana Standard, adding that partnering with Barstool is a “judgment call” for the athletes.
Barstool, being aimed at a young demographic, is positioned well to get college athletes to want to sign up, especially if their own schools aren’t going big on NIL marketing development. It’s essentially free content for them. They attach their name to just about every college athlete who wants some free Barstool merchandise.
Barstool might just post pictures of their college athletes on the site, and it might be totally innocent. But, the company is far from free of controversy, with Portnoy and other high-ups in the company’s structure facing allegations of sexism and abusive behavior in the workplace.
Honestly, it's probably nothing nefarious, other than hitching yourself to a controversial wagon. It seems like a good way for Barstool to generate free social media content, too, without having to actually pay anyone or create anything. Barstool has an enormous and committed fanbase in the college crowd, and Portnoy is nothing if not an expert on drawing attention to himself and his brand (whether good or bad), so athletes can rest assured that there's a good chance they get notoriety that otherwise might have been difficult.
At worst, Barstool uses an athlete's image along with something related to its Penn National partnership or an event involving alcohol and puts a player's NCAA eligibility in danger.
It remains to be seen whether the student athletes will be paid with anything other than the occasional Barstool-branded merchandise. Athletes playing sports with lower profiles than SEC football or Big East basketball have smaller chances at big-money NIL deals, so partnering with a well-known company makes sense.
But is promotional merchandise payment enough to offset the unknowns?