Barstool Latest Digital Media Company Trying to Break Through IRL

·4 min read

Erika Nardini explained at the recent Barstool Sports upfront that the “Barstool Everywhere” mantra is about taking “as much market share as possible, whether it is on the internet or in your grocery aisle.” But the company’s chief executive was not exaggerating for emphasis. One Bite frozen pizza will go on sale today at 3,500 plus Walmart stores nationwide (and within the Barstool Store). “Four years ago we turned the Instagram pizza review series One Bite into an app. [Now], we’re turning it into something that you can find in [stores] across the country,” she said. Barstool’s venture into frozen pizza is the latest example of a digital media company trying to break through IRL—“in real life,” a term used in video game circles to refer to social interactions in the physical world.

Our Take: The trend of digital media companies appearing in real life (see: Overtime’s formation of Overtime Elite) has taken hold as more and more of them strive to “become intertwined in the lives of their audiences as traditional consumer brands,” Michael Neuman (founder, Scout Sports & Entertainment) said. He explained the shift in philosophy is the result of shifting market conditions. “It all comes down to choice. As media becomes even more fragmented, but niche, there are many consumer options to curate a wide array of sports programming. Like CPG (consumer packaged goods), product and service brands, the same marketing logic applies [here]–relevancy, conversation and mystery win the day.”

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The need to diversify revenue streams would also seem to be a catalyst for the mobile media companies. Remember, with the social platforms de-emphasizing branded content, many advertising-led businesses are less lucrative than they were before.

Barstool is not the first media company to try to become more of a traditional consumer brand. Many have tried; most have failed (remember the ESPN Zone). But they are a bit different in the sense that few have tried to break into the CPG category.

Barstool Sports’ comparatively lean payroll and varied revenue streams enabled the company to use the pandemic as a time to “launch new formats, explore new distribution and take more risks,” Nardini said. Among the risks cited was the company’s latest attempt to expand the “Barstool Everywhere” concept beyond the digital realm and into real life.

While a place in the frozen foods aisle fits the “everywhere” narrative, the company views One Bite as a revenue opportunity. As Nardini said, frozen pizza is a “massive category. In 2020, it was a $20 billion industry.” The CEO is convinced there is an opportunity for Barstool to take a cut of that pie, based on Barstool fans’ loyalty to the brand and founder Dave Portnoy.

But the move into frozen pizza is by no means a sure thing. The category is a tough one. It is highly competitive (both among market participants and for shelf space), and the margins are slim.

The frozen pizza category is highly concentrated, and DiGiorno is currently the big fish. But with a loyal following and a multitude of distribution platforms, Neuman said he could envision the digital media company taking a share of the market. “The math adds up,” he said. “Barstool has an entire media empire behind them, complete with ancillary programming and influencers with massive social media followers.”

While it might sound ridiculous, the One Bite franchise has become synonymous with quality pizza. My two local go-to spots both tout Portnoy’s ratings outside their respective establishments (one is an 8.9, the other is an 8.8). So, the company should be able to convince people to buy One Bite frozen pizza one time. The question is will the product quality be good enough that they buy it again.

A Happi Foodi, a New Jersey based company, will be responsible for manufacturing the product to Barstool specifications, and Nardini said the Barstool team “worked on the recipe.” The company lined up One Bit samples alongside slices from some of New York’s finest pizza establishments at their recent upfront. For the record, Portnoy is said to have given the pizza a 10 rating (we remain skeptical that frozen pizza could earn a perfect score).

One Bite is not Barstool’s first foray into the consumables business. The company introduced Pink Whitney Vodka (in collaboration with New Amsterdam Vodka) two years ago after an ad read on the Spittin Chiclets podcast turned a mixture of vodka and pink lemonade into a viral sensation.

The company has also proven effective at marketing High Noon spiked seltzer to their audience. “We saw what we could do with High Noon,” Nardini said. “When we were motivated by royalties and not just an ad commitment, we took that product to the stratosphere.”

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