With all of the hype surrounding the launch of Penn National Gaming’s Barstool Sportsbook betting app over the weekend, there was one thing missing.
Watching any NFL game Sunday or on Monday night, you were almost certain to see one or more commercials for DraftKings and FanDuel, and possibly others among the 10 online sportsbooks now legally operating in Pennsylvania.
But Barstool, which went into official, permanent operation with much fanfare Friday, after a three-day test period?
It’s part of a rare marketing strategy by Penn National at a time when the ad wars between DraftKings and FanDuel have been heating up once again in state after newly legalized state as well as nationally, similar to how their ubiquitous advertising for fantasy sports drew so much scrutiny — and criticism as excessive — in 2015.
“We didn’t have to spend any marketing dollars for our very successful launch,” Eric Schippers, Penn National’s senior vice president of public affairs and government relations, said of the weekend rollout.
With Barstool as partner, why pay for ads?
According to Penn National and Barstool executives in a Sept. 14 forum sponsored by investment firm J.P. Morgan, a big ad spend would defeat the purpose of the Pennsylvania-based casino operator’s $163 million investment in Barstool Sports early this year.
Penn National CEO Jay Snowden said he was discouraged from any such paid campaign by his new Barstool partners, noting they already reach some 90 million individuals monthly for free, with the target audience being young men interested in sports.
Snowden said he initially presented a traditional ad plan to Barstool founder Dave Portnoy and CEO Erika Nardini.
“They looked at it and said: ‘This is a complete waste of money. I wouldn’t do any of that. Let’s wait until we launch because we are going to create so much buzz early,’” Snowden related to investors.
“We’re going into this riding Barstool, which is exactly why we did this deal in the first place,” he said. “You think about the built-in advantages … on the marketing spend and user/cost acquisition costs vs. everybody else.”
Snowden alluded to the many FanDuel and DraftKings ads he has already seen during this new NFL season, even though the two mobile sportsbooks already account for some 70% of the bets made in Pennsylvania.
“We’re not going to have to do it that way,” Snowden said. “We don’t want to do it that way. We’ll be smart about how we do this.”
Launch is cited as outpacing those of rivals
Barstool Sports is a multi-media giant, reaching a vast audience with personality-driven entertainment and brash sports and cultural commentary across platforms.
It is by those means that the new sportsbook is being promoted, whether through the Barstool Sports website, with its abundant banner ads, or through its 2.5 million Twitter followers, 5 million Facebook followers, 8.8 million Instagram followers, podcasts, videos, Sirius radio, and more.
Portnoy, Barstool’s colorful and controversial founder with 1.8 million Twitter followers to his name, pointed out the success of the strategy in a video Monday. He read from a Bank of America analyst’s note on the weekend launch that noted the sportsbook app had been downloaded 29,000 times in its first 48 hours, or four times as much as either FanDuel or DraftKings had managed with their respective launches.
Portnoy told the analysts at the J.P. Morgan conference last week to expect exactly that kind of success.
“There are so few people on the internet who have true influence,” he said. “We do, and hopefully, that’s going to be the differentiator.”
Barstool relies on making users feel included
The Barstool app bears many similarities to competitor platforms. It differentiates itself by highlighting betting favorites among Barstool personalities with whom its users would be well familiar, as well as by presenting some bettor-friendly vig for games, at least in its first NFL weekend.
As one way of promoting the app, Portnoy and other Barstool Sports personalities such as Dan Katz and Marty Mush are living in a rented Philadelphia house temporarily. Videos show them sprawled across their living room — like a bunch of overaged, college frat boys — watching games they have bet on, cursing and screaming at the TV, high-fiving at highlights, and falling despondent at outcomes like the New England Patriots’ final-play loss to the Seattle Seahawks Sunday night.
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) September 21, 2020
Nardini, Barstool’s CEO, told investors that the company knows how to connect with its sizable audience, making followers feel as if they’re included with what the site’s personalities are up to.
Barstool can take advantage of that connection, she said, as “the fourth biggest podcast publisher in the world,” one that can do a better job of drawing customers to a fledgling sportsbook app than traditional television, newspapers, or digital media ad buys can.
“What’s different about Barstool Sports is that we’re everywhere,” Nardini said. “We’re on every platform you can imagine. If a consumer can be on a platform, we’re on that platform. We’re bigger than ESPN. We’re bigger than The Washington Post. We’re bigger than The New York Times.
“What I really believe is that we are going to harness our audience,” she added. “They want to do what our personalities do. When our personalities start thinking about getting excited about sports betting, our audience is going to want to follow along.”
Penn National is betting she’s right. The first hint of that possibility was the app’s download numbers over the weekend. The next may be the sports betting handle and revenue figures to be released by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in mid-October, which will show how Barstool’s sportsbook compares to rivals FanDuel and DraftKings over the second half of September.