While some celebrate Barstool Sports losing its bowl game, CMU, MAC cite 'great experience'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

There were a lot of positives for Central Michigan in switching bowl games, starting with the bigger exposure and bigger payday of playing in the prestigious Sun Bowl. 

One more positive: Central Michigan and the Mid-American Conference also didn't have to answer any more questions about the title sponsor of the Arizona Bowl, brash and controversial media outlet Barstool Sports.

Not that CMU and the MAC weren't ready to answer the questions.

"We were prepared to do so," MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said, with a laugh.

CMU players participate in Topgolf during their stay in Arizona.

As it was, CMU and the MAC were wildly complimentary of Barstool Sports and the Arizona Bowl committee for the hospitality it showed this week, even though the game won't go on and the Chippewas will move on after Boise State had to pull out of the game because of COVID-19 issues.

Central Michigan now will play Washington State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, at 12:30 Friday.

But the CMU traveling party of about 300 stayed in Tucson, Arizona, until Thursday, to take advantage of all the auxiliary activities that Barstool Sports and the Arizona Bowl had planned — like some good meals and one night playing Topgolf. Players received a gift bag that included a Lululemon backpack, Reveal custom suit jacket, bucket hat, Hypervolt Go massager, and a wireless waterproof Bluetooth light-up speaker.

"Arizona put together a great experience," CMU athletic director Amy Folan said.

"And we're gonna see that through."

This was the first year for Barstool Sports as the title sponsor of the Arizona Bowl, and its involvement was met with some pushback.

After Barstool signed on, Pima County officials pulled $40,000 in funding after Barstool was named title sponsor, and there have been several outspoken critics of the game.

CMU coach Jim McElwain, however, was not one of them, citing Barstool's fundraising efforts for restaurant owners and employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort raised nearly $40 million.

"What they did during COVID to help restaurants and the amount of money that they raised to help those businesses stay alive, let me tell you something, man, I think that tells me you're going to a place where people are really about giving back," McElwain said earlier this month in an interview with Flint's ABC 12.

"And I think that's really exciting."

Dave Portnoy, the oft-criticized founder of Barstool Sports, responded to McElwain's comments on Twitter, saying, "This!!! Athletes and coaches know actions speak louder than words."

More: In switching bowls, CMU gets bigger exposure, payday, but tougher opponent

Portnoy, whose fame really ballooned because of his pizza reviews (among them, Fredi the PizzaMan in Melvindale), has seen his words take a bit out of his reputation. The University of Michigan alum has been accused of being misogynistic and racist, and last month he was accused of sexual misconduct — all charges he's denied, attributing all those charges to critics trying to take him down because he speaks his mind with little regard for who he might offend.

The two conferences tied to the Arizona Bowl, the MAC and Mountain West, distanced themselves from Barstool Sports early in the partnership, saying it's not their responsibility to choose a title sponsor. 

In a statement from Steinbrecher after Barstool signed on to sponsor the bowl in July, he said: "The Mid-American Conference does not approve or endorse the title sponsors of our bowl partners. Each bowl has the authority to select its own sponsors, with approval from the NCAA. Additionally, the bowl manages and contracts for the broadcast arrangements. I fully expect the Arizona Bowl relationship with Barstool Sports will be managed appropriately and the bowl will continue to provide an exceptional experience for the participating student-athletes, coaches, and fans."

Barstool Sports isn't new to the college football game, having launched a Saturday pregame show in 2018. It was at the Michigan-Michigan State game this year.

Barstool Sports has been trying to get into the game-broadcasting sphere, but has been met with resistance, most notably from Major League Baseball. The Arizona Bowl was set to be streamed live on BarstoolSports.com, as the only college bowl game not to be played on linear television.

Friday's Sun Bowl, which has Tony the Tiger as its mascot from Battle Creek-based Kellogg's, will air on CBS, and give the MAC a much bigger payout than the Arizona Bowl would've (though exact numbers haven't been disclosed). Portnoy bemoaned the cancellation of the Arizona Bowl — a bowl game that was played in 2020, in a scaled-down bowl season — saying, "It sucks." It doesn't for CMU and the MAC.

But, while many on social media celebrated the cancellation of Barstool Sports' game, CMU and the MAC certainly weren't about to throw shade on their way out of town, either — Steinbrecher noting that bowl committees work year-round on the game and student-athlete experience.

"I've gotta say something, mean, the City of Tucson and the people here at the Arizona Bowl have done an unbelievable job for us," McElwain said Wednesday. "Just talking about the staff and the organization that is the Barstool Sports (Arizona Bowl), I can't tell you how professional they were to work with and what a great group of people they are. I just feel horrible we weren't able to play in this bowl game.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984