It used to be the case that non-fiction sports output was limited to biopics of star athletes, or journeys following a team throughout its season. However, evolving partnerships and approaches to telling sports stories have opened up locker rooms, offering a new window on the sports world and the athletes, coaches, executives and fans within it.
Just as the natural history documentary was revitalized by event programming such as Planet Earth, sports organizations, production companies and networks are revisiting what a sports documentary is and what it can be. The key with this genre is tapping into a world of knowledge and access through strategic partnerships.
The most recent joint venture to enter the playing field is NHL Original Productions, launched in November. Executive producer Ross Greenburg, previously the president of HBO Sports, has teamed up with NHL’s Content Group to develop and create long- and short-form programming for NBC Sports and the League’s media assets.
“NHL Original Productions’ goal is to capture the game and the players as never seen before and give the average sports fan the hook to come on in and become a fan of the NHL,” says Greenburg.
NHL Original Productions is on a breakway with its first documentary series NHL 36, which follows one star hockey player in the hours leading up to a game. The first episode launched on December 14 on NBC’s Sports Network (formerly known as Versus).
For 36 hours straight isolated cameras and a number of microphones captured Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane’s every move prior to and during the game. The remaining nine episodes of the documentary series, currently without airdates or players attached, will each follow a different player.
“We’re going to showcase not only the way the NHL works but how a player deals with the game and the day off,” Greenburg says.
To further pump up the series, NBC Sports has positioned the docuseries to air the same night as a game that the particular episode’s star is focused on.
Greenburg was able to gain unprecedented access to current NHL players with a major push from the league itself. John Collins, the league’s COO, worked with general managers, presidents and coaches to secure the access. “You really do need support from the top of the league, whether it’s John Collins or [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman [to] make sure the message is sent at the [board of] governors meetings: this is important to us as a league, so please open your door.”
While Greenburg and NHL Original Productions are working to create a deeper appreciation for present-day hockey games and athletes, ESPN Films has looked to the past for its inspiration. Its slate of nine non-fiction films that aired this past year on the American sports cable net have ranged from Eric Drath’s Renée, focusing on Renée Richards, the world’s first transgendered tennis player, to the season-ending The Marinovich Project, which focused on Todd Marinovich, the NFL player who had a spectacular rise and descent in the ’90s.
Following on the success of ’30 for 30,’ the Peabody Award-winning documentary series which ran from 2009-10, Connor Schell, ESPN Films’ vice president, says that the division’s current output aims to remain identical in content and structure to what fans came to love about the series, which were “director-driven stories that really take a point of view about a unique, dramatic, tragic [and/or] inspirational story in the sports world.”
The 2011 slate featured films from established documentary filmmakers Alex Gibney and Morgan Spurlock alongside up-and-coming directors, much like ’30 for 30′ brought in the talents of filmmakers ranging from Albert Maysles to rapper/actor Ice Cube.
“When folks like Albert Maysles, Barbara Koppel, Brett Morgen and others are turning their lenses on the sports world in thoughtful and creative ways, I absolutely believe that pushes the genre, creates new way of telling stories and ultimately elevates it,” says Schell. “If you look at the films that we did this fall I think they were every bit as good for ’30 for 30.’ And I expect the films we do next year will be even better.”
Indeed, from a ratings perspective, the trajectory for the network’s sports docs appears to be an upward one. The most-watched film of the 2011 slate, The Fab Five, garnered more viewers than the two most viewed films of the ’30 for 30′ series, Pony Exce$$ and The U. The Fab Five, which aired in March and focused on the University of Michigan basketball team from the 1990s, earned a 2.1 rating to become the network’s highest-rated documentary to date.
The 2012 slate, which will have approximately 10 documentary projects, is currently being shaped by Schell and team.
“The sports world provides such incredible true stories that unfold on the field and with these films, it’s a great opportunity to take a step back and look a little deeper with the perspective of time,” he says. “The Marinovich Project is a perfect example of a story that was covered one way in the early 1990s and two decades later we look at it and bring a very different perspective.”
Schell also has the benefit of using the expertise of various sports league production arms. For ’30 for 30,’ some of the films were produced in part with NFL Films, NBA Entertainment, MLB Productions and NASCAR Media Group.
“These production entities not only have really extensive archives and expertise within their sports, they also have really talented producers on staff,” he says.
Another major name in sports, consumer publication Sports Illustrated, recently partnered with HBO and Endgame Entertainment to produce a five-part documentary series called Sport in America, set to debut in 2013.
The HBO documentary series will see assorted individuals, ranging from average Joes to well-known celebs, recalling a major moment in sports that touched their lives, and the reasons why it did.
Endgame’s CEO James D. Stern says the project percolated years ago after a conversation with his father, in which the elder Stern recalled being in Wrigley Field in 1932 the day Babe Ruth famously “called his shot,” pointing somewhere while at bat – the jury’s out as to where – and then blasting a home run to center field.
Later when Stern met up with Terry McDonell, the editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated, the project gained focus.
“I’ve always said if you talk with a cab driver about a game you’ve seen, on the way to meet with a CEO, the conversation with the cab driver and the one with the CEO is exactly the same,” says Stern.
“So we started thinking about it in terms of a metaphor for how we as a society and culture at large see things, whether it’s racially or politically, and it grew from there,” he adds.
Currently, there’s an open call via SportinAmerica.com for people to submit videos telling their stories of how compelling sports moments have impacted their lives.
“I’m not interviewing Michael Jordan about a shot that he made, I’m interviewing people who watched the shot [to find out] what it meant to them and what was going on in their lives,” explains Stern.
Sports Illustrated will help provide historical and editorial context through its writers and archives, as well as valuable marketing muscle to the documentary project.
“If your favorite player has a plane crash while he’s on his way to give humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, which happened to Roberto Clemente, that’s a human story,” sums up Stern.
“The fact that he was a remarkable player for the Pittsburgh Pirates and that’s why people were interested in him is significant to some degree, but it’s still a human story.”