I want to be careful about how I approach this.
I also want to make it clear that this is not a personal attack on Barstool, of whom I have decidedly mixed emotions. The truth is that being a high school boy, living in Massachusetts, who rooted for the Patriots during Deflategate, it became incredibly easy to get into Barstool. Years later, it’s a site I try to avoid. The cult of personality it inspires, along with its problematic history, aren’t things I’m interested in at this point in my life.
Still, they managed to catch my eye with an announcement they recently made, which impacts college football, bowl season, and the Group of Five. Barstool Sports is the new sponsor of the Arizona Bowl, which matches a Mountain West and a MAC team annually. Last year, that meant San Jose State vs. Ball State, which was one of the most anticipated G5 games all bowl season.
Now, let’s put it out there that I have no issue with Barstool burning money on a bowl sponsorship. Most companies that sponsor a bowl game are going to have some baggage in their past. Chik-fil-A, a company whose COO has made homophobic comments, sponsors the Peach Bowl without issue. If Nike were to sponsor a bowl game, nobody would bat an eye at their long list of human rights violations, including the use of Uyghur labor. For those who don’t know, the Uyghurs are a group of ethnic Muslims who live in China and are going through enslavement and what can effectively be seen as a genocide.
That isn’t excusing anything Dave Portnoy or anyone at Barstool has said or done. I’m not trying to. I’m just saying that complaining about who they are inherently as a sponsor is something people tend to do to score points in an imaginary Twitter game.
With that being said, this new change in the Arizona Bowl is devastating, as Barstool is not just the new sponsor, but they’re the network that is going to be broadcasting the game too.
Put aside the historic lack of quality when Barstool produces content, or the fact that they’re the Michael Bay of the online sports world, this means that the Arizona Bowl won’t be on TV. The only way to watch the Arizona Bowl is going to be through Barstool website, app, and social media.
It actually makes a ton of sense for Barstool to do this. It forces the eyes of those who care about the game to their website, while taking a gamble that they can use their rabid fanbase to compete with the games on TV during that time. They’re predicting that the future is streaming, which they’re not wrong about, and that they can be the ones who take advantage of it. That second point, it should be noted, is more than debatable.
Still, it’s going to be bad for the teams involved in the Arizona Bowl, the conferences, the fans, the families, the G5, and the bowl game itself. The fact is that the viewership for this game is going to tank. Streaming games is the future, but it’s not here yet, and for now the numbers of games that go up behind a paywall or to be streamed in some kind of way aren’t strong. Casual fans don’t want to pay to watch something they don’t have a vested interest in, while others are content to go with whatever game happens to be on TV at the time.
Last year’s Arizona Bowl, which was on CBS, had 1.77 million viewers. Those are excellent numbers for any G5 game, only being beaten by a couple of G5 bowls, and surpassing regular season numbers from Cincinnati vs. UCF, which sat at 1.58 million viewers, or the MAC and Mountain West Conference championship games, which had 875,000 and 1.42 million viewers respectively. Barstool’s audience, it should be pointed out is large but not that large. They managed to get 41,000 people to buy their pay per view boxing matches. Now, football could do better, especially if they post it without the paywall, but expecting it to pass one million, or even 885,000, the halfway point to last year’s viewership, is a stretch.
The fact is that this means there will be fewer eyes on two G5 programs that made it to the postseason and deserve to get the type of attention that last season’s game got. Their families deserve to easily find their game on TV and to not fear that this too goes behind the paywall.
That’s important, as schools use college football as a marketing tool. Make no mistake, whether it was Boston College after Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary or UCF after Danny White declared them National Champions, there is a reason that schools with good, visible football programs get more applicants than they did before those teams came along. Bowl games build fanbases. This takes away that opportunity to build a fanbase by being on TV.
Furthermore, this is really just the next step to shoving the G5 teams and conferences into the corner. It’s a major step into streaming bowl games, which will decrease their popularity with fans, making them truly irrelevant.
This isn’t an inherent knock on streaming mind you. ESPN+ has over 12 million subscribers and is a great way to watch games of any sport that weren’t going to make it onto TV anyways. As I said earlier, in a lot of ways it’s the future. Except, bowls are played when there is very little else to show on TV, which does help to prop their numbers up, as for anyone watching TV midday in December it’s better than daytime TV.
By putting a game on Barstool, it makes the game almost entirely irrelevant to college football fans as a whole. It shoves it in the corner. It makes the game worse than an exhibition. It makes the game forgettable. This is a minor bowl game that can be successful and important to a lot of people risking that it and the other G5 bowl games fall down a slippery slope.