With the world of sports largely sidelined, Barstool Sports saw its monthly U.S. audience drop 24% during April and downloads decline 19%, according to Podtrac. Deirdre Lester, Chief Revenue Officer at Barstool Sports, expects its advertising revenue will be off by 20% to 25% in the near-term, pointing out second quarter has traditionally been a lighter period for sports-related advertising without any big tentpole events. “Business has been a rollercoaster – we have a lot of positive things going on at Barstool Sports, but everyone is affected,” she told Digiday’s The New Normal podcast. Lester said that even though second quarter is likely to be “pretty tough for everybody” in terms of advertising, direct response marketers have remained active. “Singles and doubles matter right now,” she said. “And if we can get some new advertisers in the door and give them the opportunity to test something at a lower investment level than they might have had to make in the past, we’ll probably come out really strong and have more advertising partnership than we would have.”
Barstool Sports now relies more on advertising revenue. The company did away with its subscription business since the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. It had more than 30,000 subscribers, letting paid users out of their plans and making all its content available to everyone.
Barstool Sports’ April wasn’t different than many other podcasts faced. Podtrac reported last week that all top 20 publishers saw a decrease in U.S. monthly Audience in April over March. And its data shows the average unique monthly audience for the top ten publishers decreased by 15% from March. But sports-focused networks took a bigger hit. ESPN saw its U.S. audience shrink 18% and downloads fall 9%.
Lester said Barstool Sports’ focus as a “conversation starter” beyond just sports has helped it hold up in what could have been a much rougher patch. “It definitely benefits us to not be solely forced on sports because without any live sports to talk about – we still have a lot to talk about and we still have a lot of people tuning in to hear what our point of view is on a day to day basis about everything else that is going on in the world and sports,” she said. “Sports is coming back and we can’t wait for it but at the same time we have higher website traffic.” While podcast listening has slipped, she said Barstool has seen big gains in the number of people watching web video.
The loss of March Madness-related advertising cost Barstool Sports millions of dollars, according to founder Dave Portnoy. But Lester said in recent weeks they’ve been able to bring some of those advertisers back on board by demonstrating they could reach their targets through the company’s lifestyle-focused podcasts and other content. “We’ve been able to salvage some of those deals and some of those partnerships because some of our partners’ businesses are doing well and they just needed to pivot to what people are watching now given that there aren’t any live sports happening,” she said.
Barstool’s live event business has been especially disrupted, but Lester said some marketers are supporting events being pushed to later this year. “Other brands want to do something virtual,” she said. And Lester said the company has benefited from long-term partnerships.
Barstool has also created new content timed to the coronavirus to help tie in the thriving beer and spirits categories. The Kevin Clancey-hosted podcast KFC Radio is including a game show feature called Social Distancing and producing the Friday Night Pints Live streamed happy hour on Twitter, YouTube and Barstool Sports website. “We’re garnering huge audiences, which is a perfect opportunity to integrate those brands,” she said.
But it’s not just alcoholic beverage manufacturers that are spending more. Strong categories have also included food delivery and tech. There are also new clients. Bartsool had been in preliminary conversations with Death Wish Coffee and Lester said they were the first brand to jump in big post-lockdown. “They’ve been integrated into a lot of our shows and now I think they will come out having a lot of success with us and become a long-term advertising partner.”
In February Barstool Sports was sold to Penn National Gaming in a $163 million deal that gave the casino operator a minority 36% stake in the company, with the rights to boost that stake to about 50% after three years with another investment of $62 million. That valued the company at $450 million.
Penn National expects to spend $10 million developing a Barstool Sports betting app as well as launching Barstool-branded features at its brick-and-mortar casinos in time for the NFL season this fall. “When you combine this casino database monetization opportunity along with the ability to cross-sell the Barstool Sports database of sports betters to online casino products in states where it is legalized, our differentiated omnichannel strategy looks very promising for the future,” Penn National CEO Jay Snowden said during a conference call last week. He also said that Barstool had its best e-commerce month during April, adding, “There is no shortage of advertisers.”