Timothy Burroughs: The president of bros

By Timothy Burroughs, Columnist
Published November 20, 2013

There are very few graduating seniors who have had a linear path through college. The vast majority of undergraduates utilize their time at Michigan and the years following to find themselves and create their future career. Frequently, this involves some reevaluation and plan changes along the way. While not all of us can follow the Mark Zuckerberg model of capitalizing on a good idea early, understanding our individual strengths allows us to discover our own niche where we can be successful.

University alum David Portnoy understands this as well as anyone: He’s the owner and founder of the popular website and franchise Barstool Sports. Perhaps better known by his alternate persona, El Presidente, Portnoy developed the Boston-based blog, which is devoted to sports, pop culture, YouTube videos and plenty of scantily clad women. Although it has hardly been a direct path for Portnoy, his site now receives more than 75 million page views a month and has become extremely profitable through the combination of advertising, the Barstool Blackout concert tour and original apparel sales. Portnoy harnessed his previous career skills in sales and marketing to capitalize on the “fraternity” culture of 18-to-35-year-old males. Portnoy’s success exemplifies how capitalizing on our personal strengths and understanding target audiences can lead to entrepreneurial success.

Portnoy, who was originally only accepted to the School of Nursing at Michigan, quickly transferred into LSA after arriving on campus. Unable to pass the undergraduate language requirement, he transferred again into the School of Education, where he graduated with no intention to become a teacher. Though never a member of Greek Life at Michigan, Portnoy lived in West Quad Residence Hall his freshman year where he befriended members of the wrestling team, who became his close friends throughout his undergraduate career. Portnoy began working in sales after graduation where he gained experience pitching ideas to prospective advertisers and an understanding of how to maintain an audience and a market for his product.

The original Barstool Sports site launched in 2007 when a fan of the original newspaper version moved to New York but still wanted access to Portnoy’s product. Back when blogs were still something you didn’t want in your plumbing, this avid fan created a site where Portnoy could upload content in a PDF format and effortlessly post it to the site. Since then the site has taken off nationally, with fans referred to as “stoolies” ranging from college-age students to many of Boston’s professional athletes.

Portnoy attributes his rapid success to two main factors. By entering the blog world early, Portnoy feels his site “was unique by its very nature of existing. Looking at a lot of different blogs out there (now), whether it is Bro Bible or Total Frat Move, in my mind (they) rip off what we do… We had a huge head start.” While he may have been able to predict the interests of his audience, Portnoy admits the biggest surprise was how popular his writing became.

“I was never supposed to be a writer, but the things people responded to the most were stories from my personal life, so I just followed it,” he said. Being able to adapt to what fans want has been a consistent goal of Barstool. The blog, which claims to be “by the common man, for the common man” has never feared trying new ideas, but constantly evaluates what works well and what falls short.

The site now includes separate blogs for New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, the Washington D.C. and Baltimore area and, recently, Los Angeles. Barstool Blackout Tours, which started as a party series at fraternities, has expanded into a huge money maker, featuring shows across the nation including the University of Michigan. Barstool has also expanded into original YouTube content through “The Bro Show” which Portnoy feels could turn into the next big thing for his franchise with a possible TV deal on the horizon.

Building on an established audience and maintaining loyal fans has allowed Portnoy to build a thriving brand. For those of us still looking for the next Facebook, Portnoy’s story shows how each opportunity contributes to the mindset of how to become competitive. His business sense, gained through personal experience and critical thinking, illustrates the process from which modern entrepreneurs can be successful.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu.