In the new age of unconventional digital content, it’d be hard to argue against Dave Portnoy and his Barstool Sports empire having a prominent place on a Mount Rushmore of the internet. If we’re being honest, they might own the whole damn mountain by now. What started in 2003 on the streets of Boston in the form of a free, sports gambling newspaper, has turned into a media juggernaut, valued at $450M, with more Instagram followers than the state of Massachusetts.
Coincidentally, a UK based follower recently sent me a message and asked if “the Barstool thing is big in the United States…?” Being the ignorant American I am, I was taken aback by the bloke’s question. The former pipe dream outlet—once run by a few employees out of a derelict, squirrel-infested house in Milton, MA — now operates from a massive Manhattan office with hundreds of employees and an annual top-line scratching nine figures. The website averages an astounding 66,000,000 unique website visitors per month. Sixty. Six. Million. Safe to say, Barstool is a thing here. A BIG thing.
Despite the massive audience, which bridges Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z, polarizing opinions abound. Justified or not, the laundry list of objections centered on how the rogue enterprise conducts itself often feels never-ending. Barstool and controversy have always gone hand in hand. One could argue it’s been a critical differentiator and recipe for success to their rapidly expanding influence. Their personalities seldom apologize for speaking their mind, nor do they care to play by the ever-changing PC rules most have come to accept as status quo. With that being said, I’m not here to be the Barstool morality police [Deadspin feverishly tried that and it didn’t go well].
I am, however, obliged to heed OTC legal counsel, and issue the following statement to ensure my journalistic duties and commitment to transparency are fulfilled before we move forward.
DISCLOSURE: I’ve followed the journey of Barstool Sports for almost a decade. I know nearly every inside joke and backstory dating back to Ball Don’t Lie, Weird Haircut Seth, Frambulances, etc. I say this only to denote a high-level of familiarity with the company and everything that comes along with it. From a brand perspective, their story is fascinating. With that being said, I wouldn’t call myself a prototypical “Stoolie.” I don’t wear their merch, nor will I blindly defend everything they do. Nonetheless, I still enjoy a portion of their content and respect the hell out of what they’ve built. If you can’t at least admire the media powerhouse they’ve created “brick-by-brick,” let me save you some time and suggest you kindly see your way out. Lastly, it should be noted that Riggs was contacted to offer input or perspective and was unable to be reached.
Despite what some might be expecting, my objective in writing this isn’t to belligerently take a wrecking ball to the house of Fore Play. Any dimwit could do that. At best, I hope it provokes thought and reasoned discussion. At worst, it conjures up some type of reaction, good or bad.
In The Beginning…
…there was Riggs. A St. Louis native, Harvard graduate and varsity hockey player who officially joined Barstool Sports on April 4, 2016. He was initially slated to cover “real news type shit,” according to Barstool Sports Editor-in-Chief, Kmarko. Riggs set sail on his pirate ship voyage with a blog titled “Panama Papers: Biggest Data Leak In History Reveals That, Appallingly, The Rich And Powerful Are Corrupt” which you can read here. The notoriously ruthless Barstool comment section had feedback on the introductory piece. Graciously, the responses were a mixed bag. One retort in particular stood out.
In spite of Dixie Normous’ hard stance, Riggs was no fool when he (allegedly) first met Portnoy at a coffee shop and convinced Dave he’d regret not hiring him. Riggs has since racked up more than 2,300 posts on the site and carries over 208,000 Twitter followers. For reference, his personal account has roughly the equivalent Twitter footprint of @NoLayingUp. In a social media world where followers equal cash and clout, Riggs is as flush as they come. And if there are in fact, Harvard graduates who underachieve, he’s certainly not one of them.
Foray into Fore Play
On January 23, 2017 Barstool launched the cheekily named “Fore Play” golf brand with a podcast teaser hosted by Riggs and accompanied by cornfed Iowa native and Bachelor enthusiast “Barstool Trent.” They described the vision of the golf podcast as:
“Fore Play. You might like it before sex, you’re definitely gonna like it before golf. It’s simple. It’s a podcast presented by the common golfer, for the common golfer …it’s not pretentious, we’re not afraid to admit when we don’t know shit, that’s part of the fun.”
More than three years later, for better or worse… it’s clear they’ve remained committed to the founding concept. Fore Play has driven their ball straight down the common-golfer fairway (paradox for the nerds). In doing so, they’ve claimed a spot as the undisputed No.1 golf podcast in the world, according to numerous traffic sources. In kind, they’ve also become the target of endless scorn amongst both the old guard journalist contingent and the new age “woke” golf community.
In Fore Play’s relatively short tenure as a voice in the golf world, criticism has consistently grown. From the outset, Fore Play has taken fire from multiple directions, but that’s nothing new for a Barstool brand. In fact, it’d be unusual if some degree of vitriol didn’t exist. After years of loosely following Fore Play and closely following their social media feedback, I’ve condensed the most common Fore Play condemnations into three primary buckets:
- The content sucks and they don’t know anything about golf
- Fore Play is only successful because they ride the coattails of Barstool
- They’re unworthy fanboys who insult the honorable and upstanding profession of journalism
*Their golf talent/abilities have been excluded, because honestly? Who cares
First and foremost, saying something sucks is not a take (h/t Jim Rome). However, I do believe there is some degree of truth to each of the above viewpoints. In reverse order, let’s dig into each and save the big enchilada for last.
Critique 1 – They’re Unworthy Fanboys
There’s been a storm brewing between the Fore Play crew (i.e., Riggs, Trent, Frankie & Lurch) and the Big-J journos of the golf world for at least a year. You know the type… probably got a degree from Northwestern or Missouri, spent a decade beat writing and getting coffee for senior writers, etc. Their position within the professional media landscape was undeniably hard-earned and they’ll be damned if they let the f*cking luggage guy from The Bachelor claim space in their exclusive media center. Try to take credit for a scoop they were working on? It’s pencils down and Twitter thumbs up.
The simmering water finally boiled out of the pot in 2019 at The Presidents Cup. The bizarre conflict began when Fore Play released a statement from Kessler Karain, Patrick Reed’s caddie and brother-in-law, regarding a physical altercation with a fan following a match.
Bob Harig and Michael Collins from ESPN subsequently quoted the statement without crediting Barstool, who broke the statement well in advance of the ESPN writers. Bickering ensued.
…very weird flex to supposedly be on the phone with Kessler, while simultaneously tweeting a multi-line response with hashtags and an emoji. But do your thing Mike. The fight continued the following day after Fore Play posted a fist bump video with USA Team Captain, Tiger Woods.
Holier-than-thou Harig (noted enemy of the brilliant Lou Brown) took some troll bait and jumped back into the fray. This time taking direct shots at Barstool, in a now deleted tweet.
Riggs returned fire to let Bob know he DGAF what he thinks. The response was a no look alley-oop for stoolies to posterize a defenseless Harig. What’s the point of having a colossal social media hammer if you never get to swing it?
John Huggan also needlessly checked himself into the game to take a few shots of his own at Fore Play’s right-hand man, (Alright) Frankie Borrelli.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg to the Barstool vs. “Old Man Media” saga which has been extensively covered by numerous industry voices. From my perspective, Barstool is under no obligation to abide by the unwritten rules of journalism. They’d laugh at the idea of even being considered in the same profession. Both groups are competing for largely different audiences across different mediums. There’s no reason they can’t peacefully co-exist. This is a classic “get off my lawn” situation. The problem being that the lawn in this instance is more like Gramercy Park; Anyone with a key can let themselves in and enjoy the park as they see fit.
The question of whether Fore Play deserves the access they receive to tournaments or players is an irrelevant debate. Barstool brings tens of thousands of eyeballs and subsequent engagement. To the governing bodies and sponsors who promote and finance events, that’s incredibly valuable. It’s certainly more valuable than a throwaway gamer about Phil Mickelson’s mediocre round at Bethpage.
If decision makers feel that the conduct of credentialed Barstool staff is so unbecoming to the sanctity of the Big-J machine, it will stop. But don’t hold your breath, media relations staff would attempt to free solo the cliffs of Cape Kidnappers to grab a piece of the product exposure and engagement Barstool offers. If that means printing passes for a few alleged “fanboys” and in exchange they get a couple disgruntled reporters amongst an army of them? That’s a no brainer – don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Critique 2 – They’re Riding Barstool’s Coattail
Another common issue people take with Fore Play is that their success is primarily due to the gargantuan following of the Barstool brand. This accusation is both true and not entirely fair. If Riggs, Trent, Frankie and Lurch started their own golf content shop from scratch, would it ever be where Fore Play is today? No, no and no. One thousand times, NO. Having spent a couple years traveling down that road, it’s not easy. It’s difficult to measure how big their Barstool booster seat is, but I’d imagine it’s a similar size to the ones Eric Trump and Hunter Biden have received. A cheap shot for both sides, how bi-partisan of me.
The truth is that the sharp ascent of Fore Play would’ve never occurred without the captive and furiously devoted audience they were gifted from Barstool. In my opinion, the access they’ve received and interviews they’ve landed are more a credit to the broader organization and less of a testament to Fore Play. Having the ammunition and the resources of an extremely prominent and influential brand is a weapon which exceeds all content quality, knowledge and characters. Their golf platform has always been an “if you build it, they will come” proposition.
Irrespective, we can’t hold their good fortune against them. It’s not the fault of Riggs & Co. that they found their way into a position to leverage brand power to their advantage. They deserve credit for grinding away on countless hundreds of podcasts, videos and what I’ll generously call “blogs.” They’ve established genuine relationships in the industry, developed engaging sub-plots amongst the personalities and produced some videos or podcasts I’ve enjoyed over the years [except for the narrator in their new series who is horrid. HORRID!]
Most notably to their credit, they launched the Barstool Classic event series in 2019 which hosted tournaments in 9 cities around the country. The championship was held at Liberty National, the well-known and uber private New Jersey club. Planning, promoting and executing a multi-stage event across the country of that size is no small undertaking.
Huge brand or not, the Fore Play boys have put in the time, hard work and managed to solidify a devoted audience. You can’t take that away from them, even if Portnoy gave them a FastPass+ to jump in front of the line. Whether you agree with how they’ve chosen to leverage that opportunity is a separate and purely subjective issue. The data paints a very clear picture, and it looks a lot like them printing money and not giving a shit what anyone else thinks.
Critique 3 – The Content Sucks & They’re Clueless
There are a number of other topics I could cover. Like “Are Tour players (e.g., Bryson) and industry personalities (e.g., Faldo) simply exploiting Barstool for personal exposure?” The answer is obviously yes. But this isn’t a PhD thesis, so that analysis can be found in the non-existent appendix. It’s time to give the people what they want. Here’s the most essential take on Fore Play.
Fore Play’s content strategy is lowbrow and what the woke folk would scornfully consider uninformed, on purpose.
If you think a company that rakes in roughly $100,000,000 / year isn’t thinking critically about one of their biggest house brands… you’re the one not thinking critically. They have all the financial resources and connections at their disposal to make Fore Play whatever they want, hosted by (just about) whoever they want. FFS, they just offered the “Call Her Daddy” girls $500K a piece in guaranteed annual base pay. They aren’t “stuck” with what they have, they like what they have.
The primary competitor of Fore Play is clearly No Laying Up. Within the NLU website forum, The Refuge, there’s an extensive user-created thread devoted to Barstool & Fore Play. In less than two years it’s accumulated over 3,500 comments, which primarily touts NLU while simultaneously trashing Fore Play. No issue there, this is America baby! Land of the fre… hm, nevermind. Point being that the supporters of each group aren’t terribly fond of one another. Even a teaser tweet for this blog generated a pointed reply that Fore Play is a “dollar store NLU.” Admittedly, I laughed. To those who want a similar style product with enhanced insights and nuance, it’s an accurate description. That said, NLU doesn’t want to be Fore Play and Fore Play doesn’t want to be NLU. Some “Refugees” have wasted little time in labeling the latest Barstool “Travel Series” a ripoff of NLU. Conversely, there’s been little to no appetite in returning the favor and labeling NLU’s new multi-city tournament in 2020 a Fore Play ripoff. Not to disparage either concept, but they’re not exactly novel ideas. If they’re stealing ideas from anyone it’s the AND1 Tour and Rick Steves.
The self-proclaimed enlightened golf community (of which I’d consider myself a member) tends to have trouble grasping the size of the larger, non-woke, golf audience. This is a key breaking point in the logic of the anti-Fore Play crowd. What nobody seems to realize is that Barstool has strategically captured an audience that is exponentially larger than the niche, hardcore golf population. You can call their content shit if you want, but don’t call them dumb. One man’s shit is what thousands of boys call Saturday. Barstool has scooped up the vast majority of the everyday golfer market while the rest of us “enlightened” idiots fight over the leftovers.
Ironically, I believe a lot of the venom directed at Fore Play is born out of disappointment from people who genuinely like and regularly consume Barstool (whether they’ll admit that or not). They’re familiar with products like Pardon My Take and understand the power behind its machine. To them, Fore Play is the woeful youngest child who couldn’t follow in the footsteps of their older mature siblings.
Personally, I don’t care for most of the Fore Play content, but I’m damn sure a LOT of people do. If you blew past my warning and came to see me ruthlessly bash them, you’ll likely leave disappointed. Not to go full Anders-Lang, but I feel some sort of connection with fellow golf content creators who are trying to bring new energy to the game— in whatever style they choose. Howevah… if I could make one change to the Fore Play content / team it would be to swap out dead weight, keep the skilled color commentators and add one
truly (no free ads) knowledgeable personality to sprinkle in that extra context and raise the golf IQ ever so slightly. It would add a new dimension I believe their existing audience would appreciate and pull in fringe listeners looking for more depth.
If you don’t like Barstool or Fore Play, that’s fine and you certainly aren’t alone. But if you think they don’t damn well know exactly what they’re doing, you’re mistaken.
Special thanks to Casey Bannon, Assistant Editor at The Golfer’s Journal, for teaching me how to do punctuation good. Amazing what a Master’s Degree will get you these days. SMH.