A docuseries about the competitive world of Texas youth football is stirring up controversy for the nascent Esquire Network.
The 10-episode Friday Night Tykes (pictured) follows five teams of eight- and nine-year-old players in the Texas Youth Football Association’s (TYFA) Rookie division. Set in San Antonio, the series follows the players throughout their 2013 season, from pre-season to the state championships.
The first episode debuted on January 14 and attracted an audience of 428,000 viewers, according to the U.S. cable net.
Before the premiere, a teaser trailer kicked off a debate in the media around the ethics of pushing young children to act aggressively on the field.
Some critics recoiled at shots of children smashing into each other and coaches shouting obscenities at the young players, and likened the coaching methods to bullying. Meanwhile, ESPN investigative series Outside the Lines devoted a half-hour to the issues of youth sports and producers are fielding interview requests from radio and TV outlets.
A spokesperson for the National Football Association (NFL) also sounded off, calling the trailer “troubling” in light of the league’s efforts to reduce head-to-head collisions and related concussions.
Producers maintain that the show is merely documenting common behavior rather than condoning it.
“There are issues about burning our kids out,” explains Matt Maranz, an executive producer for 441 Productions, which coproduces the series with Electro-Fish Films and Texas Crew Productions. “Every parent wants what’s good for their kids, and we created this youth sport world to accomplish that goal, but the question is whether what we’ve doing is beneficial for our kids or is it having adverse effects?”
Maranz grew up playing in youth leagues and is now a youth sports parent. He was inspired to pitch the show after witnessing how youth sports can become an “all-encompassing obsession” among American parents. When he and his production partners approached the TYFA with the idea to produce a series, officials were keen to expose their coaching methods to a wider audience.
“What’s interesting about [the league] is that they also want to have a discussion about the role of youth sports in society,” he adds. “They believe we’re too soft on our kids – that we coddle our kids – and our kids and country suffer because of it. They were eager for a platform to get their perspective out there.”
Four years ago, Maranz put together a sizzle and began pitching to various networks. The feedback was pretty much the same everywhere: it was either too sporty for the non-sports network or not sporty enough for the sports networks.
Last year, NBCUniversal shuttered the female-skewing lifestyle cable channel Style Network and launched the Esquire Network in a bid to attract an upscale male demo the company felt was being underserved by current cable offerings.
In particular, Esquire hopes to draw educated and professional men in their late twenties, thirties and early forties – a demographic full of new fathers or soon-to-be fathers who are most likely grappling with how to define their roles as parents.
That theme immediately resonated with Esquire’s head of programming Matt Hanna, who is also a youth sports parent, during the pitch meeting.
“The two things that stood out from the pitch tape were the intensity of the parenting and of the coaching and the quality of the football that was being played by eight- and nine-year-old boys,” says Hanna. “You could tell pretty clearly on the tape that they were getting intimate, fly-on-the-wall access to this world. It was clear to us that there was a television show here.”
He adds that despite the quality of the sizzle, the underlying theme was essential to his decision to green light Friday Night Tykes. “We’ve been approached by a lot of producers with access to professional and college sports teams, and we’ve passed because it didn’t have that extra layer of insight,” he explains.
Hanna anticipated the show would cause controversy after the sizzle polarized opinion among his programming team.
“As parents we’re constantly questioning ourselves: ‘Am I doing enough? How far is too far? Yes, I want my daughter to be an all-star soccer player, but what am I willing to do to get that?’” Hanna continues. “I know people who pay for private coaching and push their kids in a way that I’m not willing to do, but I still want my daughter to be the best.”
“We don’t think it’s our place to make a judgment about what’s happening,” he adds. “We thought it was more important to put this on TV to show that world and spark a conversation. We’re excited that people are talking about it.”
Development on Friday Night Tykes began last spring. Esquire paid for Maranz and his collaborators to return to San Antonio, Texas and begin sourcing teams to follow. They eventually settled on five teams – meaning the two camera crews would have their work cut out.
By the time production began in August, several characters had dropped out of the league or moved on so the crew has had to find new parents and kids to follow. Combined with the fast turnaround time – editing began during production and is still ongoing –Friday Night Tykes has been a challenging show to cut.
“We would be editing a show and something would happen and then we’re like, ‘Well, that’s going to make no sense later on unless we set it up here,’” says Maranz. “So you have to go back and try to plant the seeds that will pay off later on.”
For example, a significant storyline evolved when a player the crew was not originally following sustained an injury. That player became a main character from that point forward.
The producers decided not to interview the children on camera after their lawyers warned that asking them questions would constitute direction. Although the kids feature heavily in the series, only adults speak directly to the camera.
“Creatively, I like that we’re not actually talking to the kids,” explains Maranz. “You can feel a lot of the kids’ reactions in their faces, and you probably see it in their faces better than you would if you asked them a question.”
They also made a conscious decision not to use voice-overs to drive the narrative and, given the sensitivity of the subject matter, avoided portraying the parents and coaches’ over-the-top behavior as cartoonish to score laughs.
Maranz believes the format could be repeatable with other youth sports such as hockey, gymnastics or tennis as the focus and is talking with Esquire about how to extend the idea. Another way might be revisit the players when they are teenagers.
He has had preliminary discussions with the network about future iterations of Friday Night Tykes but a new season is of course contingent on a successful first one.
“It’s a format that could work for other sports and there are other very competitive football leagues,” he says. “Youth sports seem to be sweeping the country.”
Friday Night Tykes airs on Esquire Network on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST. Watch a clip below: