If you plan on watching the return of FBS football this weekend, you can turn the channel to CBS Sports Network, ESPN or FOX on Saturday. If you want to watch Eastern Illinois at Indiana State, you better have a subscription to ESPN+, just as you need to sign up for FloSports in order to tune in to UTEP at New Mexico State.
A new player recently entered the realm of college football broadcasting and distribution, as Barstool Sports is the new title sponsor and broadcast partner for the Arizona Bowl starting this season. The game, which currently has tie-ins with the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and Mountain West Conference, will air on Barstool Sports’ website, app and social media channels.
In an email sent to the Mountain West’s athletic directors and presidents the day before the official announcement, Mountain West Deputy Commissioner Bret Gilliland wrote, in part, “The Arizona Bowl has built in contractual oversight provisions to allay uneasiness related to some elements of the brand and Barstool is taking seriously the need to execute the arrangement in the appropriate fashion.”
In response to a request for comment, Arizona Bowl Executive Director Kym Adair wrote in an email that the bowl game doesn’t comment on its contracts with sponsors or partners.
“We are thrilled to have Barstool as a partner and were excited to find a partner who also values charitable giving and making a positive impact on our community through the Bowl,” Adair wrote. “The public response has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. We are farther ahead on ticket sales and sponsorship sales at this time than we were comparably in past years. While there are some that have questioned the partnership, we are confident that they will eventually see the incredible visibility Barstool adds to our Bowl and our community along with the charitable donations that will be derived from this partnership.”
In Gilliland’s email to the Mountain West’s presidents and ADs, he wrote, “The Arizona Bowl believes this arrangement will be transformational for the game in terms of profile, promotion and finances.”
Adair also cited the NCAA’s approval of Barstool Sports as the Arizona Bowl’s title sponsor.
In response to a request for comment about the sponsor-approval process and whether the NCAA had concerns about approving Barstool Sports, either because of Penn National Gaming’s significant stake in the company or Barstool Sports’ track record of misogyny and bigotry, NCAA Director of Communications Stacey Osburn said in an email, “Barstool is considered a media entity for the purposes of a title sponsorship. Other aspects of Barstool’s operations (e.g., gaming) are not covered by this title partnership.”
Barstool Sports has increased its presence in college athletics, which has caused some headaches for some who work in the industry. Barstool Sports has engaged in numerous name, image and likeness deals with athletes, which have come under the scrutiny of athletic department compliance officers across the country because of Penn National Gaming’s stake in the company – an affiliation that presumably explains why the NCAA said the gaming aspect of Barstool Sports isn’t covered by its approved title sponsorship. Staying within the Mountain West, last month one Boise State compliance officer wrote in an email to an athlete at the university, “State laws prohibit working with gambling companies. Our policy also states that. Now we need to determine if Penn Gaming and Barstool are the same for the purposes of the state laws.”
As part of the bowl sponsor-approval process, each bowl must submit its proposed title sponsor to the NCAA, “specifically for in-camera view and on-field sidelines to the NCAA in connection with the bowl application,” Osburn said.
On the day of the sponsorship announcement, a University of Nevada alum wrote an email to Adair, Nevada Director of Athletics Doug Knuth and Gilliland, the Mountain West’s deputy commissioner, “My concern about the partnership with Barstool Sports is that I believe their company culture does not align [with] the universities in the Mountain West Conference - nor any other university. Examples: 1. Racist and Islamaphobic comments about Nevada legend and civil rights activist, Colin Kaepernick, by Barstool founder, Dave Portnoy.”
I obtained a redacted copy of the email through a public records request.
Portnoy has previously made comments such as, “He looks like a terrorist,” and “I’d like to actually follow those bloodlines then and see if there is any bin Laden in him,” regarding Kaepernick, the Nevada football program’s most famous alum, who holds the school records for most career points, total touchdowns, passing touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and total offense.
The Nevada alum closed the email with, “Yes, they have freedom of speech, but organizations also have freedom of choice to align - or distance themselves - with hate speech. If the Arizona Bowl couldn’t find a better sponsor to financially carry the Bowl game, I want to know how we set aside our values of respect, equality and dignity to watch a football game.”
Knuth, Nevada’s AD, began his email response to the Nevada alum with, “Thank you for copying me on your letter. Really well done!”
Knuth didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The list of questions I provided to Adair, the Arizona Bowl’s executive director, included one that asked what she would tell the concerned Nevada alum who wrote to her, but Adair didn’t address the question in her responses.
In the Mountain West’s preseason media poll, Nevada received 19 of a possible 25 votes to win its division and last season’s conference champion, San Jose State, played in the Arizona Bowl, so it’s possible that the Wolf Pack could be in contention to appear in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl this season, which could potentially reignite the pushback from some segments of Nevada’s fan base to the bowl’s new title sponsor.
In response to an interview request regarding the nature of the reported contractual provisions between the Arizona Bowl and Barstool Sports, the Mountain West said in a statement:
“As it relates to the acquisition of title sponsors or broadcast outlets by our Bowl partners, the Conference neither approves nor endorses them. Each bowl game has the autonomy to select its title sponsor with the approval of the NCAA and make the television arrangements it deems most desirable. Our expectation is the Arizona Bowl relationship with Barstool Sports will be managed appropriately and conform to the tradition of providing the best possible experience and exposure for our football programs, student-athletes, coaches and fans.”
While the Mountain West said it neither approves nor endorses the title sponsors of its bowl partners, the Mountain West and MAC appeared to have choreographed a prepared response to potential questions about Barstool Sports.
In an internal memo that I obtained that contained talking points that the MAC distributed to the conference’s presidents and athletic directors on the day of the announcement, a prepared statement from MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was almost identical to the statement that the Mountain West later provided.
The talking points in the memo stressed that the MAC and its member institutions “do not approve or endorse our bowl partner’s sponsors or broadcast outlets.” The MAC didn’t respond to an interview request.
Tucson.com reported that the Board of Supervisors in Arizona’s Pima County voted earlier this month to pull almost $40,000 in funding for the Arizona Bowl in light of past statements and tweets from Portnoy. The site also reported that Adair, the bowl’s executive director, sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors prior to the vote that said Barstool Sports has made “jokes that have missed (and) comedies and content that didn’t land or stand the test of time.”
As part of the announcement about Barstool Sports becoming the Arizona Bowl’s title sponsor, Portnoy shared on social media a prerecorded “emergency press conference” – one that had been filmed in Tucson the day before “with Kym Adair’s supervision of content,” according to a document that detailed the timeline of the announcement, which I obtained.
“I was trying to wait for the press conference but an article just leaked,” Portnoy said at the start of the video, regarding Sportico’s report that Barstool Sports had become the Arizona Bowl’s title sponsor – a story that was scheduled as part of the announcement.
“We are getting into the live sports broadcast game,” Portnoy said in the video. “You know what this means? The moon is a little bit closer. We’ve been trying, trying, trying.” The New York Post reported earlier in August that Barstool Sports and Major League Baseball “have had significant negotiations about having national midweek games on the site’s platforms.”
“Be ready,” Portnoy said in the video, “bowl games will never be the same.”
In addition to becoming the bowl game’s title sponsor, Barstool Sports taking over the broadcasting and distribution of the Arizona Bowl now provides the media company – through its ties to gambling and its established personalities – the opportunity to reinvent the modern-day college football broadcast for a potentially younger and sports betting-centric audience – or at least as much as the company is allowed to, contractually.
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