Can Pat McAfee Clean Up Sports Talk Broadcasting?
There’s no signage on the Barstool Heartland headquarters, just north of the Central Library on Meridian Street—only a street number on the window above the entrance. Mirrored, one-way glass lines the single-story limestone facade and deflects the gaze of any prying eyes. There is no walk-up recording studio, no bright marquee, no street-side speakers blaring, no old-school towers or antennae casting shadows from the roof. There is nothing to alert passersby, be they fans or would-be protesters, that this is an outpost of one of the loudest, brashest, and most controversial networks in national sports talk media.
The inconspicuousness of the building is more a result of tenants who moved in less than five months ago than of any security concerns. These days, the backlash and vitriol that bubbles up in an increasingly politicized sports sphere is relegated to the internet, where it festers in the dark alleys of anonymity. If the simple storefront is indicative of anything, it might be the straightforward, no-frills attitude of its occupants. And if anyone, be it a disgruntled listener, a neighbor bearing doughnuts, or just a fan, lingers outside searching for a call button long enough to get noticed, the star and namesake of The Pat McAfee Show will often answer the door himself.
This direct approach shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Pat McAfee—and in Indy, everyone knows him. He’s the former Colt, the two-time All-Pro punter, kickoff man, and place-kick holder who broke out of the social constraints of his low-rung position to steal the postgame spotlight with honest and hilarious soundbites. He’s the everyman who, upon getting soused and then discovered, suspiciously shirtless and wet, near the Broad Ripple canal by police in 2010, owned his mistake and publicly apologized to his family, teammates, and fans, pledging to earn back the trust of a city that consequently seemed to only love him all the more. He’s the guy who came to like the place so much that he convinced the brass at Barstool Sports corporate to let him set up his post-football business venture—The Pat McAfee Show podcast, its offshoot Heartland Radio, along with both brands’ blogs and YouTube channels—just outside the Mile Square when all of the other Barstool programming and personnel have been forced to uproot and move to HQ in Manhattan. “I didn’t want the people who had followed me and bought my jersey to ever think I was leaving them,” McAfee says. “There was no way I could leave Indy. I owed this place.”
Through Barstool Heartland, McAfee has done more than just bring a national entertainment brand to Indianapolis. In a way, he has also brought a much-needed Midwestern sensibility to an East Coast company that at times gets mired in its own muck. Barstool started in Boston as an “unfiltered and irreverent” forum for sports and bro banter, with bits speculating about the size of Tom Brady’s baby’s penis (including posting a paparazzi photo of the 18-month-old naked on the beach) and a dissertation on bringing back into vogue a derogatory term for women that rhymes with “punt.” Despite its vulgarity and straight-up misogyny, and perhaps because of it, Barstool grew into a network of blogs and pods in cities from Chicago to New York to Philadelphia before being acquired by The Chernin Group in 2016, at an estimated valuation of $10 million to $15 million—a range that Barstool claims has since quadrupled. There have been setbacks, most notably a recent partnership with ESPN for a 30-minute talk show that fell through after a single episode due to what John Skipper, then-president of the network, termed an inability to “distance ourselves from the Barstool site and its content.” Reports pointed to internal resistance from ESPN broadcasters who had been targeted by Barstool rants themselves—for instance, one calling female reporter Sam Ponder a “f—king slut” who should “sex it up and be slutty” on the air.
“Not everything there is my style of comedy,” says McAfee. While he says he respects what other Barstool voices do, McAfee’s comedy has always been observational, based mostly on his exploits as an ex-pro athlete. That’s not to say his routine is PG, or even PG-13. McAfee will talk a blue streak that would make the bouncer at a biker bar blush, but he tends to stop short of racist, homophobic, or sexist remarks. “My mom would beat my ass if I was ever to do anything that disrespected women,” he says.
“Pat is less cynical [than the other Barstool voices],” says Dave Portnoy, founder and spiritual leader of Barstool. “He’s more about everybody laughing together as opposed to making fun. He genuinely likes everybody. Maybe that’s a Midwestern thing.”
One year since it launched from McAfee’s basement, The Pat McAfee Show is Barstool’s fastest-growing podcast—a sign that the host’s “Midwestern thing” is finding an audience among the macho masses across the country. Improbably, the guy who was once arrested drunk, shirtless, and drenched in duck-crap-tainted water might actually be classing up the joint.
Perhaps it’s unfair to keep dredging up the Broad Ripple canal incident when talking about McAfee. After all, he apologized and has not had any subsequent run-ins with the law. He has since not only set Colts records for punting gross average, net average, and kickoff touchbacks (plus a Guinness World Record for longest field goal kicked while blindfolded), but he’s also settled his accounts off the field, both through his foundation, which offers assistance to the children of military personnel, and by privately performing random acts of kindness, from donating his signature strawberry-blond curls to Locks of Love to making an annual holiday tradition of paying off Indy families’ IPL bills.
But with the hindsight of more than seven years, The Incident proved to be a transformative experience for McAfee in a number of ways. First, his alleged dip was his first real moment of fame beyond a few colorful quotes in The Indianapolis Star sports section. (To this day, McAfee uses the word “alleged,” not in a protest of possible innocence, but because technically he was found intoxicated near the canal, with no shirt and soaking wet shortly before 5 a.m. after an otherwise dry night of dancing in October. So the presumption is that he went swimming—“But I’m a sweater,” he says. “And I dance hard.”) McAfee, then only 23, used his one phone call from jail to tell his dad he had screwed up. His dad reportedly quipped, “Oh we know … TMZ told your mom this morning: ‘Colts punter arrested for being waaaaaasted’ with six f—king ‘a’s, Pat.’” McAfee ran with the gag, eventually wearing an “I Swam With Pat McAfee” T-shirt. Second, it was a Hoosier baptism of sorts. The media, local and national, pounced on the mug shot and police report during a bye week. McAfee promptly released an apology, thinking his not-even-two-year career and life were over. But his teammates, bosses, and, more important, the fans seemed to shake their heads and laugh it off. McAfee now points to this as the moment that Indianapolis became the suburban Pittsburgh native’s adopted home. “People here were just amazing,” he says. “After getting arrested and publicly shamed, the people had my back.”
The ordeal was also something of a cold splash to the face. “It was an eye-opening experience that changed his life,” says friend and mentor Bob Kevoian, half of The Bob & Tom Show. “He was a heavy partier, going out and having the time of his life. Now he realized he had to set limits and keep himself in check.” McAfee not only rededicated himself to representing the city on the field, he started to see things outside of football. It was through The Incident that he met Kevoian. Phillip B. Wilson, then a Star sportswriter, introduced the punter as “a real nut case who needed to come on the show.” McAfee’s humor and brutal honesty won over listeners and the hosts, who invited him back as a frequent guest, McAfee’s first real foray into comedy. He eventually put together a stand-up routine that he performed in clubs around the state. This, along with nearly 700,000 Twitter followers, gave McAfee the confidence to walk away from football—and $5.9 million left on his contract—after the 2016 season. Three knee surgeries in four years had proved too many. And he was ready to give comedy his full attention.
The original plan was to team up with fellow comedy latecomer Todd Mc-Comas, a retired Indiana State Police detective who co-owns Morty’s Comedy Joint, and produce a homespun podcast out of McAfee’s basement. But fate intervened when Portnoy approached the punter about bellying up to Barstool. It was a natural match. Barstool had built its brand on unfiltered talk, hashing out sports and life over frosty mugs of Bud Light, and Bud Light was McAfee’s favorite beer—he just happened to be 6 feet tall, 230 pounds, and wearing two Pro Bowl rings. Barstool was brazenly anti-establishment, and McAfee resented the button-down outlets and networks, like ESPN, which he felt looked down on lowly punters daring to be outspoken. (When the Barstool/ESPN deal was announced, McAfee says he was actually happy because he took it as a sign that the Worldwide Leader was starting to “get it.” But he was not bothered when the deal fell through.) Most of all, despite its reputation for going too far, Barstool was about having fun, something McAfee believed had been sucked out of sports by politics and the mainstream media. “We understand that, for the most part, our listeners and readers have cubicles and 9-to-5s and this is escapism,” Portnoy says. “[McAfee] fits perfectly. He just enjoys life.”
McAfee announced his retirement (after Googling “How do I actually retire from the NFL”) and forthcoming podcast at a mock press conference that aired during a Barstool Comedy Central TV special the week before last year’s Super Bowl. “I want to turn my focus to making the world a happier place with more laughs, as opposed to kicking the ball on fourth downs once in a while,” he proclaimed from the podium before opening it up for questions. In the front row was Adam Vinatieri, posing as a pseudo reporter, ready with a mic: “Who’s going to hold my balls for me?”
Today, McAfee answers the door at Barstool Heartland headquarters dressed in sock-less tennis shoes, jogging pants, a black T-shirt emblazoned with his hashtag “For The Brand,” and a camouflage ball cap. The grand tour of the space can practically be conducted with a simple wave of his muscle-bound arm. The high-ceilinged 10,000 square feet is a mostly open playground, the basketball half-court with regulation goal and rim being the first attraction to greet visitors. To the left, there is a long bar cluttered with packages, papers, and other detritus at the foot of a stairway that leads to the loft, where a bullpen of desks and chairs awaits McAfee’s 11 employees—mostly co-hosts, producers, writers, and editors. In the back of the room, there is a lounge replete with six large flat-screens and recliners for NFL Sunday Ticket viewing, a green-screen video studio, a plush audio recording area, and a booth, where on any given day between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. (or much later), McAfee’s team of young creatives clacks away on laptops, editing podcasts, YouTube videos, and promos.
In McAfee’s new Barstool Heartland studio, the humor is decidedly R-rated. But the jokes rarely stray into the misogynistic territory that has occasionally brought scandal to the Barstool parent company. “Not everything there is my style of comedy,” McAfee says.
The buildout of this old building cost around $500,000, much of the cash McAfee’s, to say nothing of his investment of time and energy. The only office in the building belongs to him, the title “Da Boss” at the bottom of the nameplate on his untidy desk. McAfee admits that instantly going from low-level special teams employee to personnel manager, creative director, and face of a national media franchise hasn’t always been a smooth substitution. “This is my first time venturing into business,” he says. “This is my first time running my own operation, having a team of people, responsibilities on making sure things happen, payroll, and this and that and everything. I didn’t go to business school. But I wasn’t afraid to find out I was f—king up.”
Being 700 miles from the Manhattan mother ship didn’t help matters; at times, the communication between McAfee and his bosses was lacking. For instance, during the first week, while still running the podcast out of his house, McAfee noticed that there weren’t any ads for one of the shows. He panicked, thinking that since there was no commercial, there was no sponsor, and therefore no money. After calling Barstool and being transferred up and down corporate, he discovered that the ads had been bought but that he hadn’t been going through the proper procedures to retrieve them. “Pat is new at his business,” says Kevoian. “He’s going to learn a lot of things. As a businessman, he’s made a few mistakes. Once he makes a mistake, he’ll never make it again.” McAfee’s transition into the business world has also required a bit of an attitude adjustment. “If he didn’t get in with an advertiser, he’d want to trash that advertiser,” says Portnoy. “The business side is not as straightforward [as the content side.]”
Another early shortcoming came on the personnel side—and illustrates why McAfee may be playing with fire. The Heartland brain trust is comprised almost exclusively of longtime partners, like McComas, or childhood friends from back in Pennsylvania, like Nick Maraldo and Evan Fox, many of whom are on-air personalities. But when bringing in outside talent, like the interns who shoulder a lot of the grunt work, McAfee found that neither geographic nor stylistic distance could insulate his business from the Barstool bro culture. During a marathon audition of 60 would-be interns, one young man referred to himself as Cervix Killer and showed up for the second round of interviews wearing a custom T-shirt printed with the handle. McAfee thought it was funny at the time, but came to regret overlooking the ugliness of the slogan. When Cervix Killer was brought on board, he promptly started harassing a female intern, sending her Twitter DMs like “I once waited 20 years to have sex, I can wait you out.” McAfee knew he had to act. “I had to fire someone who [as an intern] didn’t even technically work here,” he says. “I told him, ‘This is not cool. This is not what I want to represent me or my company. And you are not welcome here.’ I had no idea that this was what I was going to get into. All I wanted to do was to create funny stuff for people to enjoy.” That’s the challenge.
One year IN, McAfee likes to think of himself as a little wiser, and he gets to spend the majority of his time creating funny stuff. A typical day for him starts around 10 a.m. (his team has usually been at work for an hour by then) in his office, the back wall of which is one big dry-erase board filled with notes and half-baked notions. There, amid the faded remnants of erased marker strokes, ideas either completed or discarded, is the squiggly red sketch of a promotional app, a side-scrolling video game that McAfee couldn’t quite articulate, so he drew it out during a FaceTime session with the Barstool techies in New York. There’s a green list of crazy stunts—trampoline dunk, canine bite sleeve, and helo rappel, complete with a diagram of a helicopter and stick figure dangling from a rope—ideas for an ad campaign he’s creating for Wrangler jeans. “Goalie Indy Fuel” has a blue checkmark beside it. McAfee suited up in pads and Wranglers yesterday on the ice at Indiana Farmers Coliseum and took pucks to the groin and sticks to the facemask, all while assuring the camera that the jeans, at least, were still comfortable. Above, in more permanent black ink is the mantra: Laugh more, hate less/work hard, cash checks.
Beside the marker board is the doorway to McAfee’s private bathroom, which is always open, even when the boss is urinating, so that he can shout out ideas and orders relating to the newsfeed on the phone in his free hand. “His mind doesn’t stop,” says Kevoian. “It constantly moves from one idea to the next. ‘T-shirt business.’ ‘Let’s design tennis shoes.’ He is always thinking and creating, and sometimes it becomes this huge thing, a sellout sensation. If he fails, he doesn’t drop his shoulders and quit. Failures don’t stop him.”
Around 11:30, McAfee makes his way to the back studio, where he props up his feet on the desk, puts his hands behind his head, and conducts a 40-
minute Skype interview with comedian and actor Nick Thune. There is no script, just McAfee chatting up a celebrity he met via The Bob & Tom Show. The conversation ranges from shaming a man-bunned customer for cutting in front of Thune at Starbucks to Usher upstaging Thune at his big movie premiere to Stevie Wonder complimenting Thune on his acting. (“I was like, ‘How do you know?’” says Thune.) “[McAfee’s] very open, very funny, and doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Portnoy. “He’s just a guy you want to drink beer and hang out with.”
The interview will be an entire segment on the next day’s podcast, whose listenership has skyrocketed from zero to more than 667,000 in less than a year. But McAfee’s colleagues will say his real genius kicks in when parsing out bits of the Skype conversation to other platforms—using every part of the comedy buffalo. For example, once Thune has hung up, McAfee immediately rattles off ideas for tweets on the Starbucks exchange for his 1.25 million Twitter followers and cutting together a three-minute video on the Stevie Wonder story for the show’s 275,000 fans on Facebook. “He’s so savvy about social media and content,” says McComas. “He’s about focus and dedication. He never sways. It’s easy to get distracted as the following grows.”
The bigger McAfee gets and the more content he rattles off, the more likely he is to stick his cleats in his mouth and offend someone, to be put in the same corner as the other unruly Barstool brats. But so far, with the exception of the Cervix Killer incident, the Heartland office has avoided getting swept up in the negative national coverage. “We’re considered Pat’s people,” says McComas. “So there’s an insulating layer where, regardless of what someone might think of Barstool Sports, they love Pat and know Pat’s his own thing.” And if something does cause a stir, it might well be the next lesson for the burgeoning businessman. “He’ll have to get used to the backlash,” says Portnoy. “He’s a fighter. He enjoys getting into the mix. If you throw a punch at Pat, he’ll throw 10 back at you. But there are always going to be haters. If you spend all day in the mud with all of them, you’ll never get anything done.”
“I don’t have many thoughts that I’m scared of saying, so I don’t have much of a filter,” says McAfee. “I’m confident that what I’m saying/doing is coming from a place of happiness, because that’s how I feel. Aside from the knee surgeries, the main reason I stepped away from the Colts was for mental freedom. To get away from the filter that was forced upon me by a boss who didn’t enjoy me at all. The NFL shield represents a lot, and a comedian who isn’t scared to talk like an adult and tell stories to adults isn’t exactly right on line with their thought. I loved my time in the NFL, was lucky to be there, but I thought my time there had come and gone. I called my first stand-up show, which is also my first special, Uncaged, very much a reference to not giving a f—k about what the NFL would think about my style of comedy anymore. I just wanted to make people laugh.”
Now, comedy is McAfee’s sole focus. After the interview, he checks in with the boys in the editing booth. One is putting the finishing touches on a video of yesterday’s hockey shoot, winding back and forth over some footage of his boss writhing on the ice in pain. Another is baggy-eyed, wearing jogging pants after being here until 4 a.m. this morning battling technical issues to get today’s podcast up. On the wall above them is a white sheet of printer paper bearing the mandate ALWAYS BE CREATING, with the last word crossed out in pen ink and replaced with BRANDING. McAfee steps in to critique a video promo put together by one of the newer interns.
“You have to go straight through with no cuts,” says McAfee. “Let the caption explain who the f—k you are and why we should listen to you. Twenty-four seconds. Quick video.”
The intern nods.
“I like your dry humor,” McAfee says.
“Call me an overcooked chicken,” the intern says. Then he rushes to explain: “I’m so dry.”
McAfee shakes his head. “See, you went too far,” he says. “You should have stopped one sentence earlier.”