Dan Katz, better known to the Barstool audience as Big Cat, was not shy about airing his grievances with company brass on Friday morning. On his SiriusXM show The Yak, Big Cat took Dave Portnoy and Erika Nardini to task over not consulting him about the opportunity for Portnoy to interview President Trump. He went so far as to say the interview betrayed the foundation on which Barstool was built.
If you haven’t already watched the ten minute rant, you should. Actually, calling it a “rant” isn’t exactly fair. Yes, the guy is speaking from a place of emotion, but Katz isn’t unhinged. He makes valuable points that hosts and programmers should take to heart.
Let’s start with the big question. Is interviewing the President of the United States in the White House Rose Garden, mere months before an election, a betrayal of the Barstool brand’s identity?
Katz repeated the phrase “we can’t pretend now that we don’t do politics” multiple times during the segment. He said that when he first signed on with Barstool he was told that the brand wasn’t going to get into politics, that Dave Portnoy was only focused on comedy. Joe Biden’s campaign reached out to Barstool to have the former Vice President appear on Pardon My Take earlier this year, but Katz passed because he says he and co-host PFT Commenter always viewed their show and the Barstool brand as a place where people come to escape from those kinds of subjects.
Portnoy’s interview with Trump might change the way Barstool is viewed in the short term by some. Barstool’s founder and president definitely came off as very chummy with the President of the United States. Even without explicitly saying so, it does give the appearance of a tacit endorsement from the brand. That matters when a brand has built itself around the fierce loyalty of its fans.
As for longterm repercussions, that is kind of hard to say. Barstool is not Outkick. Even if there is a segment of the Barstool fanbase that wants to “own the libs,” it isn’t the brand’s entire identity.
The mistake Barstool made is allowing this to be in the Trump campaign’s hands now. If the President invokes Portnoy’s or Barstool’s name in speeches or ads, that is going to fundamentally change what Barstool is in the eyes of a lot of people. Forget that scenario. Let’s say Katz and PFT decide there are no restrictions anymore, and they schedule Joe Biden on Pardon My Take after all, that changes the perception of Barstool too. Rather than simply being “Stoolies,” some fans will feel the need to pick a side in a war of escalating internal political tension.
Big Cat also took Portnoy to task for not doing a tougher interview. “Politics are serious, man. You can’t do a political interview and not be serious,” he said.
To a certain extent that is true. If you’re John Oliver or Trevor Noah, you better be able to prove that you have the chops to keep up in a serious conversation about the subject you have built a career telling jokes about. But I don’t know that I entirely agree that politics is a subject that has to be approached the same way by a comedian as it does by Wolf Blitzer.
Look, while I have never had a sitting president on my show before, I did ask John McCain in 2012 if he thought he could medal in Olympic fencing if I gave him a year to do nothing but train. When he was making the rounds as a surrogate for Hillary in 2008, I did tell Bill Clinton that the first time I remembered hearing him speak was when I was 11. He showed up to the Alabama/Arkansas game in 1992 and was interviewed at halftime. My question to the former president was “Did you know that Alabama team was good enough to win a national championship?”.
If you aren’t someone that lives in the political world, not only is there room for humor and friendliness in these interviews, but I would argue not using those tools at all is a bigger betrayal to your audience than failing to demand answers for detention centers at the US/Mexico border. Those are horrible and do demand answers, but maybe Dave Portnoy is smart enough to know he’s not the one that is going to get them.
The final question I think is worth addressing is how does Big Cat move forward as a part of Barstool from here? In his rant, Katz made it clear that he was personally offended by having to learn of Portnoy’s visit to the White House on Twitter like the rest of the world. He said this is not how he ever expected the company to treat him after so many of the power players involved told him how valuable he was to the Barstool brand and promised that he was a partner in the decision making process. He shared that with Barstool fans, a group he is every bit as synonymous with as Portnoy.
As Big Cat sees it, there are only two explanations as for why Portnoy and Barstool CEO Erika Nardini didn’t consult him on the decision to interview President Trump, and both of them mean the same thing.
“One is they didn’t want to talk to me because I would probably be the only dissenting view, which means that when there’s tough decisions to be made and Dan might disagree, we just won’t ask him so we don’t have to hear his view. That means my opinion doesn’t matter. Or two, they just said straight up ‘his opinion doesn’t matter.’ Either way, my opinion does not matter at this company the way I thought it did 12 hours ago, and that’s the part I’m struggling with.”
At some point, everyone in this business questions where they stand with their employer. It’s why hosts and PDs leave for new jobs in new markets. It’s why GM’s leave to start advertising agencies. The equity and goodwill your company has built with you is only as good as how you are treated tomorrow.
I can’t say I know enough about what Barstool thinks of Dan Katz. I would assume as one of their most popular personalities, he is viewed as a valuable commodity. The Coach Duggs phenomenon should prove to any doubters, in or outside the company, that Katz’s audience will support virtually anything he does. But does Barstool believe it owes him more than anyone else on its roster? I don’t think that is a question with an obvious answer.
Long ago, when I was 15-years-old, I worked for Oldies 106.5 in Mobile, Alabama. My first program director was a British guy named Tim Rose. He told me a truth about radio that hits you like a ton of bricks at some point. Our job isn’t to play music or entertain the audience. Our job is to make sure they stick around long enough to hear the Kia commercial that plays at the bottom of the next stop set.
Barstool operates in the same way. It may be classified as a media company, but what it actually is is a marketing machine. Dave Portnoy and Erika Nardini don’t care what the content is exactly. All they care about is that it is good enough to engender a legion of Stoolies to buy t-shirts and drink mix and spend their money at Penn National casinos.
Given his own personal popularity and the juggernaut that is Pardon My Take, Dan Katz would be justified to think he is indispensable. It would make total sense for Stoolies to not think they ever have to picture a Barstool without Big Cat. But what if Barstool doesn’t see it that way?
It is totally feasible that the company may see its brand as well-established enough to survive the hit of losing its most popular content creator.
It is a bitter reality of this industry. As you build your own brand, you are also building the brand of your platform. Some talent outgrow their parent company, but not everyone does and sometimes the ones that don’t will surprise you.
So many of the criticisms that Dan Katz levied at Dave Portnoy and Barstool are fair. Portnoy’s interview with Donald Trump does fly in the face of what Barstool was founded on. It does compromise the image of the brand. Barstool is being used as a political pawn. The bosses do owe their most popular personality an explanation of what is about to happen before he has to read about it on Twitter. All of that can be true, but if enough MAGA types show up to buy Barstool t-shirts all because of one interview, the company doesn’t necessarily have to care.