Back on July 1 (the day NCAA NIL regulations changed), Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy called an “Emergency Press Conference” to announce the formation of Barstool Athletes Inc. The media personality shared few details about the new venture beyond the company’s name and the identity of the first athlete to sign with the marketing firm, Jacksonville State volleyball player Adelaide Halverson. So, Portnoy’s proclamation that BAI “may become the most powerful agency in the world” seemed premature.
But CSM Sport & Entertainment Insights manager Andy Marston says the prospect of Barstool entering the sports agency business should put long-established agencies on notice. “Many agencies [know they] are underprepared when it comes to having their own audience. [The Barstool announcement was a reminder that] if they don’t build up [or acquire] an audience of their own, they may start losing top talent to media-led companies that can offer greater attention and greater [financial] rewards.”
For perspective, Wasserman has the most Twitter followers of any big four sports agency (30,500). Barstool’s main account has just shy of 3 million followers on the same platform.
Our Take: Companies no longer want to rent audiences from third parties. They now strive for direct access to their target demo—often through media acquisitions. “We’ve seen this shift towards having an owned audience in a lot of industries,” Marston said (see: HubSpot’s acquisition of The Hustle, Robinhood’s acquisition of Market Snacks). “The agency business is no different,” he noted, citing Social Chain’s emergence as one of the largest advertising agencies in the world.
Historically speaking, agencies would rent or borrow eyeballs (they have also relied on earned media). But as the industry strategist explained, “All of the stuff happening with Google, Facebook and Apple” (think: a recent iOS update that blocks much of the data-tracking that enabled Google and Facebook advertising to be so targeted) has made that approach increasingly difficult to execute. Marston predicts the depreciation of third-party data and targeting will lead sports agencies to look “to acquire media companies” and the audience that comes with them moving forward.
Not everyone is convinced the entirety of the industry is headed in that direction, though. While Chris Ebmeyer (VP, Director of Media Services, 160over90) acknowledges some agencies will look to “acquire those eyeballs,” he says many others will not want to be “beholden to just one channel or property as the solution.” The belief is that they can best deliver the target demographic by leaning on a “broad array of vehicles.”
While Barstool Athletes Inc. may have been created on a whim (Portnoy said a blind message from Halverson spawned the idea), as Ebmeyer explained, developing services around their core business is a natural progression for the company. “For many media companies, what was once called branded content, for lack of a better term, has started to generate some real revenue from them and with that growth they’ve developed actual in-house or standalone agencies” (see: Vice Media and the Virtue agency).
Ebmeyer thinks we “might see agencies acquiring media [platforms] and acquiring audiences.” But he believes it is more likely we will see media companies introducing agencies. “It provides them with a way to cater to advertisers in a greater fashion,” he said.
This is the logic behind the Barstool Athletes Inc. effort. As Marston said, Barstool “basically owns the entire college demographic” of male sports fans, and they have the media platforms to enhance and amplify the athletes’ individual brands and any brands they might align with. On the flip side, the athletes can raise awareness of the Barstool brand among their target demo by acting as a walking billboard on campus (since they’ll have the free merch). They can also contribute from a content perspective.
Marston believes the marketing “agencies with the widest reach are going to win [in an evolving landscape that emphasizes audience ownership], which is why [he is convinced] Barstool is in a unique position to dominate the college market.” It is also why he believes we are going to see a slew of media companies acquired by agencies. But having a large following is not a substitute for experience—particularly with athletes at the top of the food chain who may be more likely to value an agency’s track record of having built successful brands around athletes (see: Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler signing with Steinberg Sports).
If Barstool (or any other media company) is serious about competing for the top players, they are going to need to bring on some established agents. Marston noted it should be far “easier and cheaper to acquire top [agent] talent than it [would be] to replicate their audience.” Obviously, there aren’t many sports media properties with 10 million-plus college-aged Instagram followers (on their main account) in the U.S.
Barstool Athletes Inc. does not necessarily need to challenge for the top athletes to have a successful agency business, though. “There’s a market for [a sports agency that wants to serve] college athletes that aren’t going to go on to be global superstars [and won’t receive the resources desired at a more prominent agency],” Marston said.
Of course, this assumes Barstool intends to turn Barstool Athletics into a true agency business where the company is negotiating brand deals for their athletes (and presumably keeping a cut for themselves). There’s no evidence to date that is the plan. Attempts to reach the company for comment went unanswered.