Some ESPN Talents Expressed Concern to Management Over Polarizing Barstool Collaboration

Ryan Glasspiegel

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated that Sarah Spain expressed her concern about ESPN collaborating with Barstool Sports directly to the ESPN executive who oversaw the acquisition of the Barstool show.

On a day the NBA season opens and two MLB playoff games featuring the top three markets in the country, the biggest story on my admittedly-curated-that-way social media timeline has been about ESPN, Barstool Sports, and Sam Ponder. Here are additional intel and follow-up opinions gleaned from 24 hours of talking to people about it:

1. ESPN columnist and radio host Sarah Spain expressed reservations about ESPN collaborating with Barstool at least since last month.

In September, Spain sent emails to ESPN executives detailing her reservations about collaborating with Barstool, given the brand’s history of what she deems to be misogynistic content, The Big Lead has learned from two people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

Spain approached ESPN senior management at the ESPNW Summit in Los Angeles earlier this month and reiterated her concerns, which were then conveyed to ESPN EVP of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus, who oversaw the acquisition of the show. Yesterday was also assuredly not the first instance that Sam Ponder expressed her dismay with the affiliation.

Spain declined to comment for this story. An ESPN spokesperson declined to make Magnus available for comment. “The comments about Sam Ponder were offensive and inappropriate, and we understand her reaction,” Magnus told USA TODAY’s For The Win in a statement earlier today. “She is a valued colleague and doing a great job for us. As stated previously, we do not control the content of Barstool Sports. We are doing a show with Big Cat and PFT, and we do have final say on the content of that show.”

It should be noted that it is not altogether uncommon for ESPN talent to express their disagreement with the network’s content decisions. For various reasons (and these examples are far different from Barstool as well as each other), you can bet that many in Bristol did not want Bill Simmons given control of Grantland or Jason Whitlock given control of The Undefeated.

Ultimately, the warnings from Spain, Ponder, and presumably others did not go unheeded, but it was determined by ESPN management that the talent of Big Cat and PFT Commenter — and the fervent engagement of the Barstool audience — outweighed the negative consequences from critics of the Barstool brand.

While Spain has not expressly harangued ESPN management, it is clear she is not thrilled with the arrangement. She retweeted Elika Sadeghi’s thread last week about contract stipulations she refused to abide by with Barstool, and also publicly supported Ponder this week. (Side note: So did Sage Steele; how many social stories in the past 18 months could possibly have united Spain and Steele, who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum?)

“Saying you oppose misogyny is easy in the abstract,” Spain tweeted today. “Actually opposing it in a way that’s uncomfortable or inconveniences you is tougher. Depressing to see how many will preach about making things better right up to the point their bottom line or entertainment is threatened.”

Asked why she doesn’t just leave ESPN if that’s the case, Spain responded, “Why would I leave? I’m someone who is actually trying to make things better and doing uncomfortable, inconvenient things.”

2. Sam Ponder was within her right to be irate with Barstool, but she was journalistically reckless in the way she directed her ire.

The genesis of Barstool founder Dave Portnoy’s spat with Ponder was when she tweeted that blogs/websites “that constantly disrespect women & objectify their bodies, then take a strong stand on the Ray Rice issue really confuse me.” Portnoy responded by noting this was a false equivalence, called Ponder a “Bible-thumping freak,” and said everything else she included in this screengrab:

It’s clear Ponder was sitting on this, waiting for the right moment to strike. The evening before Barstool debuted a television show on ESPN’s platform was just that. But for Ponder to accuse Big Cat of writing those things and calling her a slut — which, as was revealed by the tape, was also Portnoy, not Big Cat — was irresponsible. If you’re going to fire a shot at someone who is now a quasi-colleague, and by inference also go after your own corporate management, it needs to be 100 percent accurate.

Even after it was pointed out to her that Big Cat did not write the piece she screengrabbed, she responded, “Yes, yes he did.” This morning she offered the following “clarification”:

Ponder would have been well within her merits to go after the Barstool affiliation at-large, or to take issue with Big Cat saying that “Everybody hates her but no one will say it out loud,” going after her for bringing her young child on College GameDay, or writing that she was a poor choice to host Sunday NFL Countdown. But, in my opinion, the merits of her points were compromised when her fired shot missed the mark.

3. The backlash would’ve happened without Barstool in the show title. ESPN had to foresee this, right?

For months there was wrangling over whether to call the program Pardon My Take or whether it made sense to have Barstool in the title. Big Cat and PFT Commenter are signed to long-term deals, but even if ESPN bought them out of their contracts and built this new platform around them, I believe there would have been nearly the same level of backlash based on their past affiliation with the Barstool brand.

It’s an open question of whether ESPN management realized the specifics of the content in the Barstool library. As Portnoy himself alluded to, there are hours and hours of audio and video in Barstool’s archives that would be offensive to some. Anyone who has been on social media since its advent about a decade ago would surely realize that, and any talent that has been targeted by Portnoy or others from the site was more than aware. Hell hath no fury like a media member scorned. Ponder waited over three years to shoot her shot.

Nevertheless, since PFT Commenter joined Barstool early last year, Pardon My Take has taken on a life of its own. It would be inaccurate to call it an island property because Big Cat in particular still has Barstool in his Twitter handle and the brand is very much part of his identity. But, this ESPN show is built around those two personalities (and will include their producer, Hank Lockwood) and their content the past couple years has been fun, funny, smart, and not mean-spirited. It has been a runaway success, regularly placing atop iTunes’ sports and recreation podcast rankings.

4. There are a lot of supporters of Big Cat and PFT Commenter, at least as individuals, inside ESPN.

As we said, none of the history or even present nature of Barstool’s content is, or at least should have been, a surprise to ESPN, and Big Cat and/or PFT Commenter (who, in disclosure, I have met about a half-dozen times combined) are well regarded by many of their talents.

Both have appeared on Scott Van Pelt’s midnight SportsCenter and guest-hosted Ryen Russillo’s radio show with him. PFT Commenter regularly appears on Bomani Jones’ radio show. Those three, as well as Adam Schefter, Rachel Nichols, Kate Fagan, Karl Ravech, Mark Teixeira, and others have been guests on Pardon My Take.

5. In a weird way, Sam Ponder probably helped engagement for the show.

It’s unclear if Pardon My Take will transfer to success in television viewership. Social media behemoths like Bill Simmons, Katie Nolan, and a host of others have been unable to bring their followers to TV. In the same time slot last Tuesday on ESPN2, Jalen & Jacoby drew 139,000 viewers.

But ESPN didn’t make this deal for television viewership. They made it because the videos will be viewed and shared across multiple social media platforms. Anyone that spends a lot of time reading about sports media knew this show was coming, but this Ponder story made it to the front page of USA TODAY’s website, to Fox News, and to other outlets.

It’s presumable that some of the attention will drive curiosity about checking the program out, even if just by social snippets. Who on earth knows how to reconcile all these metrics and combine them into a figure where we can determine a barometer for what ESPN would consider a success, but interest for this week at least should be heightened.