Earlier this week, the New York Post reported, “Major League Baseball and Barstool Sports have had significant negotiations about having national midweek games on the site’s platforms” (the non-exclusive games ESPN gave up). The story spawned a media debate largely centered around the league’s desire to cultivate the next generation of fans (see: Washington Post, Star Tribune) and Barstool’s well-documented, controversial history.
But JohnWallStreet has learned the polarizing discourse is much ado about nothing. A source familiar with the dialogue between the two parties said: “Barstool called MLB because they knew these rights are on the block. MLB fielded the call. But it hasn’t gone further than that and likely won’t. In fact, MLB was surprised to read the Post article because the conversations are barely existent.” Barstool is believed to have fed the story to the tabloid. The company did not respond to our request for comment.
Our Take: There is nothing unusual about Barstool reaching out to Major League Baseball. When tier-one rights become available, prospective partners across the broadcasting landscape will inquire. It is the smart thing to do. That’s because even if the company knows it is not going to win the package, kicking tires can be helpful in building relationships. It also provides for an opportunity to gain intel.
There is also nothing out of the ordinary about MLB taking the meeting. Doing so helps to ensure the league maintains a level of friendliness with the growing media brand. There may also come a day when the company is ready to spend $150 million per year on a national broadcast package.
What can be considered atypical is Barstool’s apparent decision to reach out to a rights owner and then look to leverage the nascent discussions in the media. But as John Kosner (president, Kosner Media) reminded, Barstool is not your parents’ sports media company. Leaking early-stage talks with MLB “is consistent with them drumming up attention for themselves,” he said, and it’s a strategy that has worked well for them.
For a company that courts publicity—good or bad—there is seemingly little downside to letting discussions with MLB be known. The affiliation helps to legitimize the Barstool Sports brand outside of their target demo and may make the company look to be more credible the next time they are pursuing a rights package.
Major League Baseball declined to comment. But the league probably isn’t thrilled by the prospect of Barstool taking talks of a proposed partnership deal to the media. The Post story has almost certainly forced them to answer questions from partners and sponsors alike.
On the other hand, baseball may not be publicly shutting down the rumors because, real or not, Barstool’s perceived interest may make the sport seem more relevant to the young demographic they desire. And there is no harm in either expanding the array of potential bidders (it’s possible that DraftKings and/or Fanatics could emerge) or having serious bidders believe the pool of prospective broadcasters is larger than previously anticipated. “It also keeps them in the news and makes the point that those mid-week game rights are available,” Kosner said.
As for those arguing MLB, and any other tier-one property, should stay away from the controversial digital media company, Kosner says they are barking into the wind. “If they have real money and want to spend it on sports rights,” he said, “there will be an audience of rights sellers.” One just needs to look at the Fox empire to make the case.