Written By: Dan McCarthy | Photography By: Kit Noble
Batten down the hatches and hide your daughters: Bartstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy has hit the big time — and he’s about to be your neighbor.
There’s a strong likelihood that you’ve never heard of Dave Portnoy, or Barstool Sports for that matter. But stop just about any twenty-something-year-old guy in the street and ask him if he knows Portnoy, you’ll undoubtedly get the answer: “You mean El Prez? Of course.” In this digital age of Buzzfeed and Gawker, Dave Portnoy — better known by his legions of faithful online followers as “El Presidente” — has ascended to the top of the viral blogosphere, turning his website, Barstool Sports, into one hot commodity that just sold a majority stake for millions. Dealing in highlight reels, off-color humor and scantily clad women, Barstool Sports is an online locker room where no topic is out-of-bounds and controversy can be equated to monetary value. So much so, in fact, that Dave Portnoy has just purchased his own slice of heaven on Nantucket. Consider yourself warned.
The brief history of Barstool Sports goes something like this: In 2004, Portnoy launched a rinky-dink black-and-white newspaper in Boston focusing on stats, fantasy sports and online gambling. The print version of Barstool, collected for its risquéMaxim-esque covers, is now long gone. In its place has risen an online empire that has spread across the country, boasting 200 million page views per month. Barstool satellites have sprung up in Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia. And just this January, Portnoy got the backing of big-time investment firm The Chernin Group, which is injecting cash and resources with the goal of taking Barstool to the next level. “I think we lead a lot of what’s happening in the digital space and we’ve been ahead of the game for a long time now,” Portnoy says. “We shape what a lot of people are doing.”
Fueling Barstool’s popularity is not so much a focus on breaking news or deeply investigative journalism, but rather brash, often puerile humor and bawdy gimmicks. “There’s a very strong if-you-don’t-like-it-don’t-read-it, anti-PC vibe with us,” Portnoy says. He maintains that Barstool is a comedy site at the end of the day, one fixated as much on the personalities involved as the content they create. And there’s no bigger personality on Barstool than Portnoy himself, whose stunts include raising $16,000 to run for the Mayor of Boston, in 2013, only to come short on signatures to get him on the ballot. Last May, he burst into the NFL’s league headquarters in New York City to protest the Tom Brady Deflategate scandal. Wearing Patriots jerseys and eye black, Portnoy and his cronies handcuffed themselves in a circle in the lobby and demanded to see NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The stunt landed them in jail for the night but also in the columns of several national newspapers and online newsfeeds the following day. Mission accomplished as far as Portnoy was concerned. “Controversies towards Barstool makes us stronger,” he says. “It rallies our base… it makes our audience like us even more.”
The man behind the bawdy El Prez persona, however, is not what you might expect. Portnoy carries himself with an affable, every-guy demeanor, armed with a quick wit and distinct cackle that hints at his sense of humor. “I’d have been happy with a successful website and $60k a year for the rest of my life,” he says. “[Now] we’re rich for a Barstool reader, but super-poor for a Nantucket person. It’s crazy.” That self-deprecating humor is a familiar brand of cockiness for which his readers know him, but Portnoy is the first to poke fun at himself for it. “It’s an amplified persona,” he says. “I’ll say things — and this gets me in trouble — where I clearly know that I’m joking, and I’m surprised when people are taking me literally or seriously.” Indeed, Portnoy has posted highly questionable content in the past that has landed him in some pretty hot water, but the thirty-nine-year-old is self-assured in the way you’d expect a self-made blogger-turned-viral-kingpin would be, brushing off his critics and openly challenging anyone willing to engage with him.
If the heat does start to get to him, though, now he and his wife, Renee, have a retreat to escape to on the island. “We fell in love with Nantucket eleven years ago,” says Portnoy. “A friend of ours from ESPN got a place and invited us down… and we got a house every summer since, typically during the Fourth of July.” Weekend rentals turned to week rentals, then full months. The dream became to buy a house of their own. This past fall, they purchased a $2 million four-bedroom in a secluded hamlet just a stone’s throw from Cisco Brewers. Flanked by conservation land and equipped with a pool ready to be debauched, many a party can be imagined at the Portnoy property, which has been dubbed “Path’s End.” When asked if his new digs will become the island’s most infamous house of ill repute, Portnoy is quick to remind everyone that in spite of all his antics, pranks and controversial news-making there’s one person still keeping everything in check. “That will not happen as long as my wife is there,” he says. “That’s for sure.”
No matter though, because as island residents will soon come to see this summer, Dave Portnoy invariably draws a crowd wherever he goes. After all, it’s not uncommon for him to be swarmed by throngs of fans any time he strolls down Lansdowne Street during a Sox game or for him to be bombarded by college jocks looking to snap a selfie with him at a bar. Portnoy jokes that his wife is his unofficial photographer when these guys (or their girlfriends) approach tentatively, starry-eyed from seeing their swag-draped blogger in the flesh, ready to high-five anyone within reach.
And now that he has his own enclave on the island from which to rule his minions and likely incite a few scenes when stomping around the Chicken Box this summer, the question surfaces: Will his relative fame carry over to the island? “It happens regardless… Nantucket is bro central in the summer, and our people are very much here,” Portnoy says. “It’s the older people that ask me, ‘who are you?’”
Well, now you know.