Erika Nardini – CEO of Barstool Sports

Episode 33

Erika is a seasoned media executive. She and I both worked at AOL (at different times), and she was also an executive at Yahoo! and several other companies. In 2016, Erika became the CEO of Barstool Sports. She had a team of 12 people. Now, Barstool has over 200 employees, and it is predicted to hit the $100 million mark in 2020. Erika and I talk about how she became a CEO, her thoughts on TikTok, how she’s grown a media company so quickly, and much more.

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Kara Goldin: Hi, everybody. It’s Kara Goldin from Unstoppable, and we’re so excited to have Erika Nardini from Barstool Sports here. Welcome, Erika.

Erika Nardini: Thank you for having me.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, thank you. Just a little bit of background on Erika. She’s the CEO of Barstool Sports. But before Barstool, she followed a traditional career path in advertising. And actually, we share a former company called AOL. So I was way before you were there, so our time didn’t cross over there, but that’s sort of a little fun fact. Really, really fun. Anyway, she was vice president at Yahoo! and CMO at AOL, really, really exciting. We’re just really, really thrilled to have you here. But I just want to talk just a little bit, just jump right in and just talk about how did you actually get to Barstool Sports.

Erika Nardini: Yeah, obviously, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here. I was a fan of Barstool Sports for a really long time. I feel very lucky to be here. It’s an awesome place. I am so excited. I think we’re building a company that’s really different and unique. I think we’re on the cutting edge of a lot of things, and it’s really fulfilling to be a part of this. I kind of got here in an unconventional way when, in 2016, I had a company in the music space and had gone to raise money for it from The Chernin Group, which was a big meeting for us.

I was somewhat intimidated by the meeting, and halfway through it the Chernin guys mentioned that they had just put an investment in this company that I’d probably never heard of called Barstool Sports. Barstool, by way of background, I’d always loved Barstool. It was the way most every guy that I knew, I lived in Boston for a long time. I went to college in New England. It was the way every guy I knew talked. It was the blog that they read, the T shirts that they wore. It was kind of an anthem in Boston and in Massachusetts, and I had really loved it.

When they said they invested in this company, I pulled out my phone and I was like, “Oh my god, this is an incredible brand,” and I had actually based a lot of the company I was working at on Barstool. I had used Barstool as inspiration for the app and product that we were building, the way we thought about content and brand and commerce and all these things. But I left the meeting, A, really excited that The Chernin Group saw something big in Barstool, because I thought that was pretty impressive. Barstool at that point in time was kind of a rogue blog. And then I also left really jealous because I was like, “They’re going to do this big search and they’re going to find a white guy with an MBA who’s worked in sports to take the job.”

About six months later, I met Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool, I met him for coffee with a mutual friend and we totally hit it off and saw the same things about Barstool, loved the same things about Barstool, saw the same vision for Barstool, and the rest was kind of history. I’ve been here about three and a half years, almost four years.

Kara Goldin: How old is Barstool? I remember when it was started, but I was just trying to …

Erika Nardini: Yeah, 2004 so it’s been around. It’s one of the older brands right now on the internet. For a brand to still be alive and thriving and growing that was created in 2004 is uncommon. You don’t see a lot of that.

Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. That’s super, super great. How many people now in the company?

Erika Nardini: We have about 215 people. We had 12 people when I started. Most everyone lived in Boston. There were some guys in Chicago, a couple folks in Philly. I was the only woman at the time, and now we have about 215 people. We have a big headquarters in New York, we’ve got offices in L.A. and Chicago, Boston, obviously, Texas, whole bunch of places.

Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. I read you played collegiate lacrosse.

Erika Nardini: Yep.

Kara Goldin: Did you feel like that’s ultimately what you wanted to get back to doing, be in sports in general? Did you always feel like you had that craving?

Erika Nardini: Yeah, I loved the locker room, to be honest with you. I played college field hockey and lacrosse. I loved being part of a team, I loved mixing it up in the locker room and playing pranks on underclassmen, and I just loved the camaraderie of it. I’m learning how to play hockey now, which is fun. So I like being part of a team. I like team sports. But I was very excited … I have a lot of passion for sports in general. I’d spend a lot of time on the internet, and I think one of the misnomers about Barstool is that it’s not just about sports.

Sports are our bread and butter. We cover sports, though, the way fans cover them and I think that that’s kind of interesting whereby we’re covering things the way a Patriots fan or a Bears fan or a Jags fan thinks about the game, the team, the refs, the coaches, the owners, the general manager. We cover things the way average guys and girls see them because we don’t profess … Our creative team and our content team doesn’t profess to be any better or different than everybody else on the internet, and I think that’s partly what’s made us so compelling, and I really love that.

Kara Goldin: What do you think is the biggest surprise in taking on a CEO role versus working in senior management roles within larger companies? What do you think was the most shocking piece of what you learned?

Erika Nardini: There’s a lot that was shocking. One, I felt like I’d had good training. I’d worked in a lot of different-sized companies, big companies, little companies, companies that were succeeding, companies that were not succeeding. I think I was surprised it’s lonely. It’s a lonely job. I think that was a little bit surprising. The buck kind of stops with you, and you can be by yourself in that. I think that it was …

What I really loved about it, I just was surprised about how much we could create and how much we could do simultaneously. I didn’t have anyone holding me back or thinking that I should work within a different structure or specific structure or to slow down or to wait. I really loved that. The freedom of it I think has been awesome, and I think the responsibility of it, I feel really personally responsible at Barstool and there’s a weight in that. So I would say those are three things that stand out.

Kara Goldin: That’s interesting. This was my first CEO role at Hint as well, and I’m a founder as well so it’s an interesting … I always share with entrepreneurs that challenge, because I think it looks super glamorous, and don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of great stuff about it but I think the concept of the buck stops with you and you’re off doing lots of things that people don’t necessarily see, including raising money and looking at spreadsheets all along the way, and making sure that every area of the company is continuing to grow and function.

Erika Nardini: Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure. I like that. I felt like when I came to Barstool, there was no looking back, and I really loved that. But I agree with you. It can be a grind. Everybody in your company has a problem at any given minute about multiple things, and having the stamina to work through that I think is important. I also think there’s a lot of … I like to be really involved. I think there’s CEOs who want to be distanced from their company, or they only talk to their management team, or stuff like that. I don’t really like that; I want to be really close to the people doing the most interesting things here. It’s been an awesome experience. It’s, without a doubt, as you know, a hard one.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, no, definitely. I also think just based on something that you said, too, I tend to make sure that I’m constantly in touch with all members of my team, not just the executive team, because I feel like I’m learning all along the way as well. So I think a lot of people think that as a CEO you hire people who are going to go and do stuff in the company, but I feel like the best people within our company are the ones that I’m hiring to not only do stuff, but also teach me on how to ultimately grow different areas and show me new things every single day.

Erika Nardini: Definitely. I completely agree.

Kara Goldin: Yeah. I think it’s such a key thing, and also I think it also helps when you … One thing that I really pushed on internally, I’d be curious to hear what you say, when we’re hiring people I always say to my executive team that … or I should say I ask them the question, are you hiring people that actually know more than you? At first, they’re shocked by, if they’ve never heard me say that before, but I also think from the standpoint of making sure that you stay engaged as a leader you want people that you’re constantly going to be learning from. Those are some of the best people, are the people that are really working in each of these individual areas that add new information as well as new ways of doing things to the overall team.

Erika Nardini: Totally. I completely agree with that. I think … I really care that we’re building … There’s two ways to build a company. You can build a triangle, or you can build a rectangle, right? I had this conversation with someone here today, where the triangle’s very clean because there’s a very small space at the top, but it’s hard to scale. But when you build out different people with different skillsets who have knowledge that you don’t or attributes that you don’t possess, I think that’s where you’re really able to move and create momentum and progress and impact.

Erika Nardini: I think about that a lot, which is … I’m like you. I want to be with the people who are … We’re very into TikTok right now, and I find it so interesting. How are people making TikToks? What are they thinking about? What’s the editing style? How are they conceiving of the concept? There’s all sorts of things that I want to learn, and I think being around people who are doing things that are completely foreign to you is great. And then surrounding yourself with people who can move things forward for you is also super important.

We had a live show last night for the holiday season, and we sold merch and it was funny and there was a lot of humor in it, and there was all of the different Barstool personalities there in the live show. Two years ago, or one year ago, I would’ve been white knuckle on that live show. Is the stream up? Does the tech work? Are the people in the right places? Are the cameras on? Is the merch selling? This year, last night, I was like, “God, I actually don’t have that much to do right now because we’ve built this thing around us.” So I
think that being able to let things flourish and grow I also think’s really important.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, absolutely. So what do you … Actually, I want to jump into TikTok. That’s probably one of the hotter applications that are out there right now. I was having a conversation with somebody the other day who fully admit they’re not the TikTok audience, but they were just really, really freaked out at how much TikTok is ultimately learning about the way that we respond and react to things. I’d be really super curious at how you see it, and should we be worried as a society? What’s your thoughts on that?

Erika Nardini: I think that we, from a society perspective, that’s a huge topic. But I think that people are obsessed with their phones, people are obsessed with sharing things about themselves. There has been a complete democratization of creation tools, so anybody can create anything at this point, and I love that. I think that’s so exciting. I think it’s scary what’s happening with data right now, how your personal data is used or how your information is manipulated, or just the manipulation of what you’re shown.

I think the social networks and platforms are not really there to help consumers; they’re not there to help publishers. They’re there to make money for those entities, and those entities have gotten very, very, very big. If you look at the revenues of Facebook or Google or Twitter or Amazon, those are bigger than most of the developed countries in the world. It’s significant how big these platforms are. TikTok has its own complications and nuances because of the China connection. I think it’s significant. I think that you’re going to see a lot of, not change, but I think privacy will become more important and regulation will become more important, and policies clearly become more important.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, absolutely. I would say that I’m even hearing more and more about it in schools, that people are using it, and I would say that many people in school don’t really understand what it is and so they’re allowing people to create and do all the great aspects of it, but they don’t really understand what ultimately people on the other end are learning about societies. It could be … It’s an interesting conversation, and I guess it really kind of goes into what you’re talking about around data, but also privacy. It could be a little bit scary.

Erika Nardini: Yeah, it is scary. And TikTok is a very amazing creation medium, similar to Vine. It’s collaborative, it’s communal. The way trends work on TikTok is very interesting. And yeah, I think people are opting out of social media. I think there’s a lot to be aware of in terms of who’s using your data and your information for what, whether it’s the Chinese or it’s Facebook or whomever that may be.

I think that’s the world we live in now, which is everything is trackable, everything is driven by a computer, or many things are driven by … or everything digital is trackable. Everything digital is somehow processed in a system of very big data, which will be infinitely smarter than you, and that’s the reality that we live in. So it’s like, what are we going to do about it? What does that mean? What does that mean for future generations? It’s scary and fascinating at the same time.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, I agree. I don’t have a solve for it, but I think hearing this person’s perspective on it, it really made me think and I’m trying to get a lot of different perspectives on TikTok as a whole because I think it’s pretty interesting. But going back to you and how you ultimately got here, did you think that you were ultimately going to be a CEO of a company? What did you want to do when you grew up?

Erika Nardini: I don’t know. I’m so happy I am. I’ve been very grateful for this opportunity. I love it. I want to keep doing it, and I think a CEO is just being an operator. It’s really being able to look at a bunch of things at once and be able to make the best possible or the most informed decision possible, and a little bit of gut and a little bit of intuitiveness and a little bit of people management and a lot of hard work. I love my job. I love what we’re doing here. I get asked about advice and people are like, “Was this the …” I didn’t have a map. I didn’t have this as a point on the map that I was going to get to. I sometimes wake up shocked that I’m here. And I don’t think you can have a point on the map, at least I don’t believe that. That wasn’t the right thing for me.

I didn’t have a “career plan”. I didn’t know that I was going to do A, B, or C or get sick of E, F, and G. I wasn’t that calculated ever in it. I was super opportunistic. I felt like I wanted to be around people who pushed me. I felt that I wanted to be in jobs that were fulfilling. I always wanted to out work. I love to work, so I always knew that I wanted to be in a place where I could really work and have impact. So I don’t think my career path was really linear. I wouldn’t have said that I would’ve expected that I would be here. I’m very glad I am here. I don’t know where I’ll go next. I try to be present in them, I guess, where I’m consumed by this right now. So I think if that’s a good answer, Kara, but-

Kara Goldin: No, I like it. I think it’s … Look, I always talk about it as it’s all part of the journey. People ask me that question all the time, like, “What are you doing next year? What are you doing?” I said, to some point you can plan, but I also feel that you also have to be willing to accept the journey and be okay with the present, as you said, and just see what comes to some extent. But you guys are doing great. I read somewhere that … and you can tell me if this is right, that you guys were on track to hit 100 million possibly in 2020?

Erika Nardini: Yeah, we’re doing well. We have a thriving business. We’re a media company in some regards that’s really thriving when most others are not. We’re growing. We’ve built a really great podcast network and a podcast platform. We have the third largest flavored vodka in the world that we launched with one of our hockey podcasts. We did that this fall.

Kara Goldin: Oh, I have not seen that, actually. What’s the name of it?

Erika Nardini: It’s called Pink Whitney, and it’s a pink lemonade-

Kara Goldin: So how did you decide to do that? That’s wild.

Erika Nardini: We have two gentlemen who host a hockey podcast called Spittin’ Chiclets, which is the number one hockey podcast. They’re former NHLers. And we have a very longstanding and strong partnership with Gallo, which own New Amsterdam Vodka. In one of the first ad reads for New Amsterdam, Ryan Whitney described how he drank his vodka, which was a pink lemonade vodka mix. Our fans just started to tweet us and DM us and post themselves drinking pink lemonade and vodka, and so we thought, “Hey, this would be a really great thing for us to create. People seem to want it. They seem to like it. It’s authentic to our talent and who we are.” So about six months later, we launched it. We have done a million bottles. We’ve sold a million bottles of it since the first week in September, so we’re on kind of a tear. But it’s been-

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. And all online at this point, or is it in stores?

Erika Nardini: No, in stores. Always in stores.

Kara Goldin: That’s great.

Erika Nardini: Yeah.

Kara Goldin: That’s super, and unique. I mean, what other company like yours is creating their own alcohol?

Erika Nardini: It’s [crosstalk 00:23:09] that way. It’s … Yeah, we’re very different in that we’re hard to pin down. We’re hard to define as one single thing, and that’s partly what I think makes us so special, and I think that’s partly what makes us so interesting.

Kara Goldin: Well, coming from your experience, too, as being a marketer, I think it makes total sense. I always tell people that I think that the biggest challenge for companies is when you just have one revenue stream. It’s really super challenging, and I think the more that you can have diversification in your revenue streams, the better, and especially in advertising.

Erika Nardini: Completely. I could not agree with that more.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, that’s great. In terms of building audiences, obviously you started out as mostly male. It seems like you’re shifting into female audiences quite a bit.

Erika Nardini: Yep. Female audiences are important. I think funny is funny, and Dave Portnoy, who really runs our content, has always felt that way. We want really talented people who have something to say and who have an authentic brand in their own right. We found some incredible people here, female and male. We launched a platform and brand called Chicks. We have phenomenal talent coming up. Ellie Schnitt is someone who comes to mind, Casey Smith. We have Fran and Ria, who host Chicks In The Office. We have a podcast called Call Her Daddy with two phenomenally talented women. So we’re starting to just find … We’re finding funny, interesting, compelling, outspoken people who want to make audio content or video content or social content and we’re really leaning into that and becoming a good creative place for them to do it.

Kara Goldin: That’s great. Where do you find talent, especially for these podcasts? Where do you think is the key area?

Erika Nardini: The internet. We find people on the internet, always.

Kara Goldin: That’s great.

Erika Nardini: Just on the internet. Yeah.

Kara Goldin: That’s really funny. Just a couple more questions. What makes you unstoppable? I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear from you.

Erika Nardini: Oh, god. I don’t know that I’m unstoppable. I try to be unstoppable. I have a lot of energy. I really love people. I’m very curious. I have a lot of hunger and drive. I like to do things and be in the mix, and I have a very strong sense of commitment and loyalty and responsibility.

Kara Goldin: That’s terrific. I read that you have a couple of kids. Are they seeing that you’re the CEO of a company, I always say to people that I have four kids, and I feel like I’m actually setting an example, especially being a female CEO, to my two boys and two girls that women can go do it. I love the fact that you’re actually running a sports company that is supposed to be … I guess guys are supposed to be running sports companies, and I think what you’re doing is just super, super amazing and unique and truly unstoppable.

Erika Nardini: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, thank you. I think we’re one of the few media companies. It’s not just me. We have a lot of really phenomenal people here, but we’re really one of the only companies in sports definitely, but in media at large that have a female … We have me, we have a female CRO, we have a female CFO, our head of production is female. Our whole C suite is predominantly female, and not because they’re women, but because they’re awesome and unstoppable in their own right. So I think it all just pays forward.

Kara Goldin: Definitely. Do you think women are attracted to … Do you find the majority of women that you’re hiring actually were athletes? Just curious.

Erika Nardini: That’s a great question. I would say it’s 50/50.

Kara Goldin: Interesting.

Erika Nardini: Not all athletes.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, I find especially in the entrepreneur zone that there seems to be a lot of people that are, especially founders, not necessarily CEOs, but are founders that had played some sort of, at least high school and many college sports, and some even professional after that. But I think it’s just such an interesting statistic that more and more I’m seeing that it’s just about team building and about hiring people that you want to do maybe things that you find difficult or that they’re more successful at it, you want to add those people into the team. I think that that’s such a key thing that I see that many have just learned naturally to some extent just growing up in sports, whether you’re female or male. But more and more, I’m seeing it in all different industries as the founders and entrepreneurs.

Erika Nardini: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think athletics is a great training ground for pressure and teamwork, and there’s an endgame. You want to win. You want to score goals. You want to get points. So I think that’s totally true. I also think the world’s kind of changing, and as you find more companies born out of the internet, they’ll be artists and engineers, and you’re going to start to see more people like that too. But I agree, I see it for myself personally. Playing sports for my entire life was a good table setting for what I’m doing now professionally.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, absolutely. So Barstool Sports, what’s the best place to find you as well as Barstool Sports?

Erika Nardini: Yes. You can find me, I’m Erika Nardini on Twitter and on Instagram I think I’m EKA Nardini. Barstool Sports you can find at You can find us under Barstool Sports or any one of our brands on Twitter, on Instagram, on TikTok, most anywhere. We have a bunch of podcasts on Apple and Spotify. We’re pretty much anywhere you can find content brands on the internet.

Kara Goldin: That’s terrific. And Erika’s a Hint fan too, so all the more reason that we all need to support her.

Erika Nardini: Exactly. That’s my jam.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, that’s so great. I love it. Great. Well, thanks again, Erika. We’re excited to have you and chat more with you and definitely have a great rest of the week.

Erika Nardini: Okay, great. Thanks so much.

Kara Goldin: Thank you.

Erika Nardini: Okay, bye.