Game, Set and Doc

Professional athletes are entrenched members of the pop-culture elite. Like rock stars and actors, their faces have become so pervasive in advertising, news coverage and TV programming that viewers know them on a one-name basis: Beckham, Tiger, Gretzky. Their images are multimillion-dollar brands unto themselves, helping to sell everything from cars to mobile phones.
July 1, 2003

Professional athletes are entrenched members of the pop-culture elite. Like rock stars and actors, their faces have become so pervasive in advertising, news coverage and TV programming that viewers know them on a one-name basis: Beckham, Tiger, Gretzky. Their images are multimillion-dollar brands unto themselves, helping to sell everything from cars to mobile phones. Moreover, these athletes compete in what is arguably the most copyright-laden playing field. Literally everything – the broadcast transmissions, the governing leagues, the match venues, the team logos, the player equipment (not to mention an athlete’s own ‘personality’) – is a copyright property that fetches high fees and is fiercely protected by its owners.

For independent producers who want to use pro-sports footage, the persistent marketing value of these images raises some curious challenges: finding the right distributor is generally straightforward, but determining who holds precisely which rights can be confusing; the price for nearly identical shots can vary enormously; and copyright holders maintain de facto editorial control over how the images they manage are presented. The key to success for filmmakers is understanding how the search for sports footage differs from the quest for other archive material.


Wark Clements producer Ross Wilson knows a lot about sports footage, having made several profiles of major U.K. soccer personalities. For Inside the Mind of Alex Ferguson and Inside the Mind of Roy Keane: Unauthorized – two Channel 4 series commissions, about the manager of the Manchester United soccer team and his most controversial player, respectively – the Glasgow, U.K.-based producer had to negotiate with several rights holders. United, one of the most recognized sports clubs in the world, plays in two main (and overlapping) leagues: the U.K.’s Premier League and the pan-European Champions League. To get the footage – and permission to use it – for broadcast in the U.K. and Europe, Wilson had to negotiate with numerous parties, United and the two leagues most importantly. All maintained tight control over access and the rates for the footage, which began at several thousand pounds per minute. ‘Part of the problem is if you’re making a documentary about somebody who operates in several theaters, you need a bit [of footage] from all of them,’ Wilson says.

This kind of rights complication isn’t isolated to soccer. Gaining access to images of NASCAR races, which net some of the largest television audiences in the U.S., is a similarly complex process. Cable sports net espn is the exclusive U.S. broadcaster of NASCAR races held at tracks throughout America; New York-based Corbis Motion is the exclusive distributor of ESPN broadcast footage.

The logical conclusion, then, is that to access a clip of NASCAR-racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving his number-eight Chevrolet, a doc-maker need only call on Corbis. In fact, access depends on where Earnhardt is driving, notes Corbis Motion senior sports collections researcher Matthew Nicholson.

‘For certain races, we are the exclusive rights holders. For other races, you also have to go to a specific track,’ he says. Several tracks, Nicholson continues, maintain the lucrative broadcast rights to their events, such as the Daytona International Speedway in Florida, which hosts the high-profile Daytona 500. espn carries the individual race, but its rights over that event end when the live broadcast is completed.

The racetrack featured in a clip also affects the fees charged to a doc-maker. ‘If someone is asking for a NASCAR shot that happens to be at a particular track, the price could be very different than if it is at another track,’ explains Rick Wysocki, VP of Corbis Motion Brands. This, he says, is because some races, such as the Daytona 500, garner higher TV ratings and advertising revenues than others. Corbis Motion can negotiate on a doc-maker’s behalf with parties like the Daytona speedway for the rights to such footage. In this case, 35% of the price charged to a doc-maker for a clip would go to Corbis for clearing the rights (65% is the licensing fee).

Burrowing into the specifics of sports rights clearances is tricky, even for the BBC. Its archive holds about 100,000 hours of sports footage, but as BBC Worldwide sport sales manager Richard Hornsby-Smith explains, ‘Often we will be able to deliver the material, but we may not have all the rights to it. A person wishing to license the material has to present us with confirmation that they have cleared all the rights.’ This careful i-dotting and t-crossing is needed even if the footage is for a BBC sports commission.

A doc-maker following unpaid college athletes – especially in the U.S., where university sports audiences rival their pro-sports counterparts – must also be cautious about rights clearances for archived footage. According to producer Tracy Barry of Partisan Pictures in New York, her prodco needed numerous organizations to give the go-ahead to make the doc This Is a Game, Ladies, about a season in the life of the Rutgers University women’s basketball squad, and to acquire the appropriate archive footage. Permission was granted by the team, the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the governing body and national-broadcast rights holder of university sports in the U.S.).

About 25% of the two-hour doc consisted of copyrighted sports footage, acquired for between US$1,500 and $3,000 per minute. The prodco bought the footage from a number of sources, including several PBS stations that transmit regular-season games, and an interview from HBO’s Real Sports program. She adds, ‘Because sports are big on TV, there is this infrastructure already in place that you just have to work with.’

An alternative to relying exclusively on archive houses is to tap collectors of sports memorabilia. The holdings of these armchair experts sometimes include hidden sports-film treasures (especially from the pretelevision era), but because the collectors often don’t understand copyright laws, researchers must be prepared to explain how copyright works.

Sylvia Mezei learned that lesson while tracking down footage of hockey great Maurice Richard for the documentary The Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Story (4 x 1 hour), produced by Montreal, Canada-based prodco Essential Information in 2000. ‘It was like detective work,’ recalls Mezei, who is now a copyright clearance officer at Canada’s National Film Board in Montreal, but at the time was an independent researcher. After much searching, she discovered one collector with an impressive vintage reel of Richard, a forward for the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens from 1942 to 1960. The collector was keen to help with the documentary, but thought the reel in his basement was his, exclusively, in every sense of the term. ‘He owned the copy, but he didn’t own the copyright,’ Mezei recalls. He could justly insist on payment for using his property (the reel), but not the images it contained.

It was a detail that required patient explanation. The collector finally agreed to lend his film for a fee, and Mezei agreed to return it with a video duplicate for his collection. She eventually discovered that the film’s copyright, originally owned by a U.S. company, is now in the public domain (since under U.S. law, its rights had expired), so it can be broadcast without payment to anyone.


Trying to understand the mathematics of sports-footage pricing can be complicated for anyone more familiar with negotiating the cost of traditional historical, news or wildlife footage. But one point is clear: sports clips cost more.

‘It’s expensive when you compare it to the cost of news footage, for which a normal archive [minute] would be close to £500 to £800 ($800 to $1,275),’ says Wark Clements’ Wilson. In contrast, Wilson was able to lock in the rate of £12,500 ($20,000) for five minutes, versus a per-minute rate of £5,000 ($8,000), for on-field footage relating to Ferguson leading United to its 1999 win of the Champions League final. It required weeks of back-and-forth negotiations and careful estimation of the clips Wark Clements required.

Corbis Motion’s Wysocki says many variables are factored into the rates footage houses demand for sports clips, among them length of shot, territory clearances and tied-in copyright fees, such as team-logo usage. Interestingly, in-game performance has little bearing on rates, so the price for a given clip of a top-rung athlete is constant for doc-makers, whether or not the shot is of a lackluster outing or a world-record-setting moment. For example, it would cost an independent doc-maker $2,100 for a one-minute clip of NASCAR driver Earnhardt, assuming it was acquired for a documentary commissioned for a national PBS strand (and assuming Corbis Motion has the ESPN shot exclusively), whether it shows Earnhardt winning or sputtering across the finish line in last place. ‘There is certain footage that is in higher demand than other footage, but that doesn’t really affect the pricing of it,’ Wysocki says.

He notes that clip pricing for documentaries is ‘a heck of a lot different’ than pricing of footage destined for commercial spots, since in the latter case an athlete’s image is being used to endorse a product or service. Corbis Motion recognizes the fact that independent producers don’t have pockets as deep as advertising agencies. ‘Within reason, we work with the budget constraints of anyone who would like to license our footage,’ Wysocki explains.

Montreal-based Esperanto Productions’ She Got Game: Behind the Scenes of the Women’s Tennis Tour is one recent sports doc completed without deep pockets. Bobbi Jo Kral, a producer with Esperanto, says about $10,000 of the $500,000 budget was spent on 10 minutes of footage, acquired from a variety of sources, for the 78-minute theatrical feature. A copro with Montreal’s DLI Productions and Life Network Canada, the film includes a clip of Jennifer Capriati at the 1998 U.S. Open, acquired for approximately $1,500 a minute from ESPN Footage Licensing, and a one-minute segment from the famous 1973 match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which she purchased for roughly $1,000 from ABC News VideoSource.

Like all successful doc-makers, Kral and director Abbey Neidik are adept at networking, and built up extensive contacts with broadcaster road crews while shooting She Got Game in 2001 and 2002. The networking paid off, especially when the filmmakers sought clips of interviews or matches they were unable to capture themselves. At the Toronto tour stop in July 2001, for example, local Canadian sports cable channel tsn handed over a tape of a preliminary match without requiring a fee payment. ‘There was some generosity of spirit,’ Kral notes.

But, it was hit and miss. ‘Sometimes the media would say ‘No problem’; other times, ‘No, my hands are tied – the deal [for a clip] is this and that’s it,” Kral says. ‘There was some film that was prohibitive, because the supplier wouldn’t negotiate the price,’ she adds. Kral recalls that for worldwide rights to one minute of footage from the press conference of Venus and Serena Williams announcing an endorsement contract with Reebok, ESPN wanted $3,000. The prodco simply couldn’t afford it, Kral says.


For a doc-maker, price is often the make-or-break factor of any business decision. But with pro-sports footage, there is another force that influences a producer’s project: rights-holder veto. All major sports leagues maintain strict rules over their archives, ensuring that post-match media images act as a positive reinforcement of their brand. The live show may have mayhem and bloodletting, but good luck getting permission to show it in your doc.

‘As a rule, footage containing fighting, injuries, penalties, or anything that may be interpreted as reflecting negatively on the National Hockey League, its players, coaches, officials, fans or sponsors will not be released for any reason,’ says Gary Meagher, vice president of media relations at nhl headquarters in New York. ‘Producers have to submit story boards, rough cuts and similar materials depicting the intended use of the material for written approval prior to using any footage,’ he says.

Wilson faced a similar editorial filter when he was seeking footage of Ferguson and the controversial midfielder Keane. The Premiership bans the release of shots of dangerous tackles and the carding of players for unsporting behavior. Wilson condemns that kind of editorial control as ‘whitewash television.’ He continues, ‘How can doc-makers bring the game into disrepute when the controversy has happened?’

Even the BBC, held throughout the world as a symbol of journalistic credibility and editorial transparency, vets all independent requests for licensed sports footage with the rights holders. Says Hornsby-Smith, ‘When we get a request that we consider even slightly controversial, or could bring the sport into disrepute, we will contact the sports federation and honor their decision, if they request that we don’t license the material.’

As it turns out, Keane himself helped Wilson bypass the Premiership’s veto, though inadvertently. In fall 2002, Keane released an autobiography and tie-in video that showed some of his most aggressive play, putting the Premiership in the embarrassing position of charging one of its own stars for disreputable use of its footage. Wilson used Premiership-released footage as well as clips lifted from the video, the latter without payment or permission, under the protection of the U.K.’s fair-dealing defense.

His argument was that Inside the Mind of Roy Keane: Unauthorized is a review of the athlete’s autobiographical material – ‘much to the fury of the Premiership,’ Wilson notes. ‘If they had realized we were going to have images of tackles or yellow cards they would have barred us from using anything whatsoever,’ he adds.


Doc-maker scores World Cup coup

For England is Mine, doc-maker Joe Bullman of Los Angeles-based Halcyone Films found a way to get footage of the 2002 World Cup of soccer in Japan and South Korea without acquiring media accreditation or officially sanctioned venue access from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) – he filmed it himself, surreptitiously.

Notwithstanding the prohibitively high fees for match footage, Bullman was following filmmaker Lars von Trier’s ‘dogumentary’ rules of doc-making, which forbid using stock footage. So, the director snuck a Sony PD-150 past stadium security, pretending to be just another camera-toting fan (There were legions of them; ‘Everyone was shooting everyone, all the time,’ Bullman recalls).

The film examines the mix of fan loyalty and nationalism by following Gary, a thuggish-looking England supporter, on his pilgrimage to the World Cup. ‘We knew we weren’t making a film about the games – we were making a film about the fans,’ Bullman explains. He did, however, shoot parts of the on-field matches, such as the pregame warmup and the players standing during the national anthems and shaking hands after the matches.

In post-production, lawyers for Zentrope Real, von Triers’ Copenhagen-based production company, evaluated the edited footage. ‘They felt that those shots of the pitch – which were not actually of the game – did a reasonable job of avoiding infringing FIFA’s rights,’ Bullman says. He adds, ‘They felt that ultimately, an image of a fan is not something that FIFA could lay claim to have exclusive rights to.’

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.