Over the past year and a half, Barstool Sports has gone from a niche blog with a cult following to a major player in sports media backed by a full-blown movement.
And nowhere has Barstool’s crossover into the mainstream media been more evident than the meteoric rise of the wildly popular podcast, “Pardon My Take.”
Hosted by Dan Katz, better known as “Big Cat,” and the anonymous “PFT Commenter,” who has a parody Twitter account of the same name, “PMT” is regularly listed as the top podcast in the “Sports & Recreation” section of the iTunes Store. Beneath PMT you can often find pods such as “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” and the two ESPN TV shows PMT’s name satirizes: “Pardon the Interruption” and “First Take.”
According to Barstool, “Pardon My Take” averages between 750,000 and 1.5 million listeners per episode and can reach two million listens for shows with celebrity guests. To put those numbers in perspective, ESPN’s best-rated debate show, “PTI,” averages about a million viewers per day on ESPN and ESPN2 combined.
The foundation of PMT’s success is the wacky chemistry between Katz and PFT Commenter and the way they feed off each other for hilarious jokes and crazy antics.
Katz, who worked in real estate before joining Barstool, and PFT, who will only say he was stuck in a miserable office job before his character received writing opportunities, originally connected via Twitter.
“It’s funny that the way we became friends was people would accuse Big Cat of stealing my takes and then people would accuse me of stealing Big Cat’s jokes because we have such similar senses of humor,” PFT said recently in an interview. “And so enough people on Twitter started tagging us in each other’s posts that we both started following each other.”
The podcast recently concluded its second “Grit Week,” where the hosts and producer Henry Lockwood, a.k.a. “Handsome Hank,” drove around the Rust Belt in an old conversion van named “Vanny Woodhead” and interviewed big-name guests such as Bob Huggins, Jim Harbaugh, Andy Dalton and Tom Crean.
In a surreal role reversal, ESPN.com even aggregated part of PMT’s interview with Harbaugh in which he took blame for the Jim Schwartz handshake dustup at midfield after Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers beat Schwartz’s Detroit Lions in 2011.
The podcast has certainly come a long way since it launched over 15 months ago in March of 2015 while being recorded on Skype with Katz in Chicago, PFT in Austin, TX, and Lockwood in Massachusetts. The audio quality was poor, the chemistry had yet to develop and the flow was clunky.
“I’m actually shocked that the podcast became as popular as it did in those first couple months,” PFT said, but added that the “duct tape and popsicle stick” feel of the show “made it a little more endearing at the time.”
According to Katz, the first big moment in the podcast was receiving a cease & desist letter from ESPN just days after the pod started. It asked PMT to change its name and logo (Barstool complied with the latter request but obviously not the former). Naturally, this turned into fodder for an entire episode and great publicity for the podcast.
But the moment “Pardon My Take” really hit its stride was the first “Grit Week,” in which Katz & PFT visited gritty cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Youngstown while interviewing guests such as Rob Ryan, Bo Pelini and Jim Tressel.
According to Katz, the last huge milestone in PMT’s rise to prominence was its interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt last August that spanned over two episodes. In a game of “call the most famous person in your phone,” Tiger Woods joined the podcast and hilarity ensued that included a crack about Pat Riley’s hair and Woods’ take on Stanford football and Christian McCaffrey’s grittiness.
“I think that was really the first time we did an interview where we hit exactly how we wanted to do interviews going forward,” Katz said. “By that I mean, we wanted to have a real conversation with the person but we also wanted to hit questions that they’ve never been asked and really get them to get comfortable in a way you don’t see them comfortable with traditional media.”
“Pardon My Take” now regularly gets guests to open up in ways they wouldn’t elsewhere.
“We’re trying to make people laugh, first and foremost,” Katz said. “I think the guests that we have, especially in person, sense that right away. And they get comfortable because they know we’re gonna make fun of ourselves, we’re probably gonna make fun of you, it’s gonna be a little bit silly, but we’re all gonna have fun.”
With Katz, PFT and Lockwood all moving to New York by last fall as Barstool shifted its headquarters from Boston to The Big Apple, the show has racked up more signature moments. Their “NFL Primetime” parodies of that Sunday’s games. PFT sneaking into Super Bowl LI Media Day despite Barstool being banned by the NFL. Van Pelt having Katz and PFT on his ESPN show. And the latest headline-making Grit Week.
Not to mention a guest list that’s a who’s who of pro athletes and sports media members.
Both Katz and PFT Commenter give effusive praise to their boss, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, for allowing the show to be off the cuff and organic.
“Most places on the Internet, you’re chasing a bottom line or you’re chasing X amount of clicks,” Katz said. “Dave (Portnoy) has always from Day 1 said, ‘Go be funny and the rest will kind of figure itself out.’”
Not everyone is such a fan of Barstool or its polarizing “El Presidente,” as the site has often found itself embroiled in controversy.
There was the 2011 post entitled “Check Out the Howitzer on Tom Brady’s Kid” with a picture of the QB’s nude son on the beach. Accusations of normalizing rape culture and misogyny with its salacious content and “Blackout Tour” college parties. Countless feuds in which “Stoolies” turn into an angry Twitter mob and attack the site’s critics.
And just two weeks ago, Barstool was roundly shunned for “fat-shaming” Rihanna; the questionable post was taken down by Portnoy not because it was in poor taste, but because he said it wasn’t funny enough.
But none of that has stopped Barstool from becoming one of the biggest and most influential sports websites on the Internet or from media mogul Peter Chernin acquiring Barstool last year at a reported valuation of $10-15 million. According to its site, Barstool now averages over 200 million page views per month.
“Pardon My Take” has largely stayed away from Barstool’s underbelly and become not only a popular podcast, but also a respected one. Pro athletes such as Danny Woodhead, Chris Long and Blake Griffin are frequent guests and fans of the show themselves. And mainstream media regulars on the podcast include Van Pelt, Mike Florio, Joe Buck and Rachel Nichols.
So where does “Pardon My Take” go from here?
In the short term, there’s talk of attending the MLB All-Star Game in Miami (“Marlins Man” is a good friend of the pod) and an interview with PMT’s “white whale,” J.J. Watt, next month. The two also plan to do a trip around NFL training camps in August, but it’s still undecided whether that will be on the East or West Coast.
As for the long term, both seem completely dedicated to Barstool and making the podcast as big as possible while the sports media landscape continues to rapidly evolve.
Said Katz: “With the way the Internet’s going with Facebook Live and all these different ways people can consume video and audio, you don’t need a radio station, you don’t need the drive-time radio host… You can do it on a podcast. I think we’re going to end up being a huge media force for people who want to laugh…”