That’s led some in Michigan to hail the founder of Barstool Sports as a savior of small business. A parade of pizza reviews and host of gambling promotions has created a buzz among local food critics and sports fans, but Portnoy’s visit to Detroit last weekend also drew criticism from some who accuse the brand of being bigoted and sexist.
In any event, it’s generated more attention for a company with ambitions to grow in Detroit, a big sports town now on track to be a massive gaming market after the launch of legal online betting last week. Portnoy told Crain’s he believes the Barstool-branded sportsbook will be a major player.
“Sky’s the limit. Cities that are blue-collar, hard-working, tend to identify with us and vice versa,” said Portnoy, who earned an education degree from the University of Michigan in 1998. “Combine that with the fact that I went to school here, and I think this will be a home-run state and city for Barstool.”
As part of the sportsbook’s rollout last weekend, Greektown and parent company Penn National Gaming Inc., which bought a controlling stake in Barstool Sports last year, matched first-time sports wagers at Greektown with a donation to the Barstool Fund.
The money is funneled to local businesses with the most need, Portnoy said. Half a dozen in Michigan have already received funds, including American Coney Island in Detroit and Bomber Restaurant in Ypsilanti.
“Michigan has had a lot of businesses that have come forward because the lockdown’s been so ridiculous,” Portnoy said. “The whole thing is important to me because Barstool Sports, in my brain, I still consider it to be a small business. We’ve been doing it for 20 years — 10 years before we actually started making a penny. I always thought, if this pandemic hit around year 10, I would have lost my life’s work with really no options.”
Nationally, the fund has raised $33 million and helped nearly 200 small businesses, according to the fund’s website. Other Michigan-based businesses to receive funds include Nola Bistro in Lansing, Holly Lanes in Fenton, Kennedy’s Irish Pub in Waterford and Champs Pub in Brighton. The amount received by each business was not disclosed.
The owner of Holly Lanes said Portnoy saved his business by promising a monthly $20,000 check to cover bills, according to an NBC 25 report.
Barstool Sports traces its beginnings to bars near Portnoy’s Boston area hometown, where the sports blog startup would go to host parties, network and eventually build up its fratty fanbase. The company has since grown into a $450 million sports and pop culture site known for rabidly loyal followers — nicknamed “Stoolies” — who are eager to take up arms on social media against any detractors of the brand.
Their latest battle has been against the National Women’s Hockey League, which criticized Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini this week for calling out fans and journalists critical to Barstool — the latest chapter in a long history of controversy for the company.
Portnoy shot back against accusations of racism and sexism targeted at him on social media during the Detroit sportsbook rollout.
“If you count like three people out of millions saying bad things, then I would say, they can kinda go to hell,” Portnoy told Crain’s. “I stand by who we are, what our company is. It’s very easy for somebody to throw a tweet out. I don’t have time for that, really.”
Portnoy’s campaign to help small businesses amid the pandemic has drawn positive headlines and support from hundreds of thousands of donors. Since he started the fund in mid-December with a personal $500,000 contribution, celebrities including Kid Rock, Tom Brady, Guy Fieri and Luke Combs have contributed.
At Greektown, the small business fundraising was boosted by a $420,420 bet placed by George Sinishtaj, a former pro gambler and partner in Oak Park-based cannabis company Ooze. The bet on the Buffalo Bills — the single largest placed at Greektown — was a loss, but a clever marketing move nonetheless.
In addition to helping businesses, the campaign appears to be helping Portnoy’s image as he looks to build the Barstool brand.
“We’ve been around for 20 years,” Portnoy said “We’ve been around in different political climates. We have people who identify as liberal or conservative, black, white, who all … support the brand because they know who we are.”