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Barstool Sportsbook Stays On Brand, Working To Attract Younger Sports Bettors

Flickr / Creative Commons
Dave Portnoy, founder of the sports and pop culture blog "Barstool Sports."

The controversial media brand is the latest entrant into Michigan’s Sports Gambling industry.

Barstool Sports, an edgy media empire, has never been afraid to do things in their own fashion. Starting this year, the new Barstool Sportsbook & Casino is following suit.

Barstool Sports
Credit Barstool Sports

Michigan launched legal online betting on Jan. 22, 2021, bettors don’t have to physically go to the casino; they can now use apps/websites such as Barstool Sportsbook & Casino virtually place bets.

According to sportshandle.com, there are currently 23 other legal sportsbooks in Michigan, like FanDuel, FOX Bet and BetMGM. The Barstool brand, particularly popular among college students and young males, is looking to capture that market with sports wagering.

Much of the appeal is thanks to Barstool’s catalog of podcasts, crude sense of humor and social media presences of founder Dave Portnoy, personality Dan “Big Cat” Katz and others.

“I’ve followed Barstool since high school, with Pardon My Take and those podcasts,” University of Michigan junior Cole Berens said. “I like seeing Big Cat’s picks and Dave’s picks, I think that’s fun and enjoyable I ride with those guys.”

With sports gambling being such a hot commodity in the early months of 2021, the Barstool Sportsbook & Casino is looking for any edge it can get. One unique feature that the sportsbook offers is the ability to “move the line,” which essentially allows the bettor to choose their odds for a game.

“Say Michigan State is a two-point favorite vs. Rutgers but you think they’re going to win by 10,” Central Michigan senior Austin Hansen said. “You can move the line to MSU minus 10 and it boosts the odds for you.”

In other words, the Barstool app is working to bring customers in.

“If you can gain customers, this is free money,” said Stefan Szymanski, professor of Sports Management at the University of Michigan. “These bookmakers can set the odds in such a way that they can balance the book. In some sense, it’s money for nothing. It’s worth trying. The trick is to achieve a large enough audience.”

The sportsbook is open in only three states, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois, but that isn’t to say the audiences and sports markets in those states are small. Pennsylvania is home to two large markets in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while Michigan boasts four professional sports teams in Detroit.

Illinois is the latest state to open up, but it is also home to Barstool Chicago, an affiliate of Barstool Sports with a focus on Windy City sports teams. With the formation of Barstool Detroit in Nov. 2020, Michigan became an even more attractive destination for sports gambling via the Barstool Sportsbook. 

A city like Detroit, with the Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings, is attractive to fans due to its prevalent history and culture. Michigan State University junior Blake Vredevoogd serves as a viceroy for Barstool MSU, which means he helps run the social media accounts. He explained what made Michigan such an attractive destination for Portnoy and Barstool.

“I think Portnoy really strives for states with a long-lasting culture,” Vredevoogd said. “He started in Boston, a huge sports city. Detroit is such a historic city as well.”

Vredevoogd added that with Barstool Chicago achieving such success on social media, including its 175.4K followers on Twitter, it was only a matter of time before Detroit got involved.

Since its foundation in suburban Boston in 2003, Barstool Sports has maintained the target audience of primarily young men. In the 18 years since, its fanbase has become rabid about sports gambling with its wildly entertaining spin on watching sports.

“I’m a fan first, but it just makes a game that much more interesting to watch,” Hansen said. “I’ll be watching San Diego State vs. New Mexico at 11 p.m. when everyone’s sleeping, but I’ll watch because I have San Diego State by 10 or something. I know I’m not a professional or anything, I’m not going to make a profit, but it’s just fun.”

Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois combine for four Big Ten schools in Penn State, Michigan State, Illinois and Michigan, where Portnoy went to college. Now, as an internet personality and successful businessman, he returned to his roots to promote the sportsbook during its opening weeks. Portnoy spent plenty of promotional time in Michigan, even doing his one-bite pizza reviews all over the state and posting them on social media.

“I think people really like Portnoy here (at the University of Michigan),” Berens said. “He was on campus for the pizza reviews and people were screaming ‘I love you’ and all that kind of stuff.”

It isn’t just Big Ten students that get in on the Barstool fun, however. Michigan is home to three popular Mid-American Conference (MAC) schools in Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, while Illinois has Northern Illinois. The competition may not be up to Power Five standards, but in many people’s minds, it’s still worth a wager.

“I know it’s not the top-notch competition like MSU, for example,” Hansen said. “But I think you just get even more of a personal pride for a MAC school since they obviously have a bit smaller enrollment than the top dogs.”

No matter where they come from, the younger bettors are vital to any sportsbook’s success, according to Szymanski.

“Younger people are more likely to be attracted by risk and the excitement that risk brings,” Szymanski said. “Often, these younger age groups will tend to have more disposable income and will tend to be large consumers. And of course, college graduates are sort of the jackpot because you know they’re very likely to be among the high earners. They're relatively young and have good jobs.”

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