Audience & Strategy: Sports nets tell stories behind scores

More networks and sports organizations are making plays for original programming, but as more players take the field, will it be harder for networks to hit one out of the park? (Pictured: NBC's Center of Attention)
October 13, 2015

Sports documentaries have reinvigorated various networks by serving a rabid audience with the story behind the score. Now, more networks and sports organizations are making plays for original programming. But as more players take the field, will it be harder for networks to hit one out of the park?

Mark Levy was perusing the sports section of his local Barnes and Noble when he came across The Outrageous Story of a Hockey Original, a national bestseller from former Boston Bruins center Derek Sanderson.

Levy – senior VP of original production and creative for NBC Sports Group – could remember following much of Sanderson’s storied 14-year career, including his assist on NHL great Bobby Orr’s famous diving game-winning goal during Game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals.

Thumbing through Sanderson’s 400-page autobiography, however, Levy was unaware of the athlete’s story following his departure from the league – a period that, for a time, found him penniless, sleeping on a New York park bench and struggling to overcome substance abuse. With his interest piqued by Sanderson’s story of hardship and redemption, Levy decided to pursue the story as a long-form doc project for NBC Sports Group and its integrated platforms.

The 47-minute Center of Attention: The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson premiered on June 8 across NBCSN following Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. It simultaneously launched NBC Sports Films as the company’s latest venture, focused solely on leveraging the company’s sports documentary capabilities and extending the in-depth storytelling it has displayed in segments during the Olympic Games, the NFL’s Super Bowl and the Triple Crown.

mark levy

Mark Levy, senior VP of original production and creative for NBC Sports Group

“We knew that we had a loyal following with our hockey audience in the first documentary that we did about Derek Sanderson,” Levy tells realscreen. “Why not super-serve that audience by giving them content that they would want to stay and continue to watch?

“When we merged into this larger group – the NBC Sports Group – almost three years ago, it gave us, from a programming perspective, more bandwidth to share this content.”

NBC’s creation of a sports film division comes at a time when the documentary genre has seen a monumental surge in such content, both locally and across the pond.

While major British networks – BBC Sport, Sky Sports and others – have been producing athlete-driven films for decades, sports-centric programming in the UK has also ramped up in recent years. In 2012, ITV Sport launched Sports Life Stories, in which sporting legends speak candidly about their careers. The series now boasts three seasons and 24 hour-long episodes.

Eurosport, meanwhile, launched its monthly intimate portrait series Sports Insider in March 2014 – months after Discovery Communications claimed a controlling stake in the sports channel group. In June of this year, Discovery and Eurosport inked an exclusive European multi-platform broadcast and distribution deal with the International Olympic Committee for four Olympic Games between 2018 and 2024.

Eurosport, which reaches 133 million homes across 54 countries, would be fully owned by Discovery one month later.

“Taking full control of Eurosport is the culmination of our commitment to strengthening Eurosport as a premier sports brand and fully integrating this business within Discovery’s unmatched global portfolio,” said David Zaslav, Discovery Communications president and CEO, in a company statement.

paul camarata, senior producer at nfl films

Paul Camarata, senior producer at NFL Films, stands in front of the final mix of Hard Knocks: Houston Texans (Courtesy of NFL Films)

West of the Atlantic, New Jersey-headquartered NFL Films realized in 1962 that documentary storytelling could be utilized to capture and portray every element of the professional game for a broader audience, says Paul Camarata, a senior producer with the company.

“What a sports documentary might do, especially for us, is allow you to pick up a story after the final whistle goes off,” he added. Such NFL Films projects as the inaugural Pro Football’s Longest Day and They Call It Pro Football – often dubbed the Citizen Kane of sports documentaries – enabled filmmakers the opportunity to dramatize the gridiron sport at a time when pro football was still in its infancy. This revolutionary approach allowed viewers unfamiliar with the game to connect to the human struggle off the field beyond the conventional highlight reel package.

Increasing exposure to live sporting events would pave the way for the likes of ESPN, HBO, CBS, Fox Sports 1, and Showtime – and more recently NBC Sports Films and Sports Illustrated’s SI Films – to focus on developing sports-oriented doc slates of their own. When ESPN repositioned its approach to documentaries with the launch of ESPN Films in 2008, the U.S. sports channel grounded itself in a more cinematic technique, recruiting individual directors and supporting their visions for the stories they wanted to share.

A year later, ESPN unleashed its Peabody and Emmy-winning ’30 for 30′ documentary film strand – 30 films from 30 directors celebrating the era covering the network’s 30-year existence.

John Dahl, VP and exec producer of ESPN Films

“It’s interesting that [sports documentaries] have really taken off at a time when people were starting to wonder whether attention spans were getting shorter, and people weren’t just going to be interested in long-form content anymore,” said John Dahl, VP and exec producer of ESPN Films, who has overseen the production of such films as You Don’t Know Bo, Catching Hell, The U and The Two Escobars under the ’30 for 30′ brand.

“I think we’ve seen completely the opposite – that they are very much [interested].”

Despite claims that documentaries may not be the best revenue generators, ESPN has invested heavily into the genre, having developed more than 140 films since the ’30 for 30′ unveiling six years ago. The hope is that long-form films will plug the network’s content gap while enticing viewers to engage with the channel longer, thereby creating a revenue benefit in the long term through audience growth.

“Economically it makes a lot of sense to tell these stories, and I think we’re seeing the kind of engagement that you would see with a traditional Hollywood scripted movie, for example, where people want to watch the films over and over,” Dahl says. “It tells me that people are still interested way beyond the score. They want to know the story behind the game, behind the people, behind the event.

“I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

Now six years on from launching ’30 for 30,’ ESPN Films will roll out its third volume of 30 films tonight (October 13) at 9 p.m. EST/PST. The mounting successes of the series have also sparked short-film initiatives in partnership with ESPN-owned sports blog Grantland, polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight, Marvel Comics, filmmakers Spike Lee and Errol Morris, and actor Eva Longoria. It has also propelled offshoot productions from the college football anthology ‘SEC Storied’ to the digital short film strand ’30 for 30 Shorts.’

“The rise in digital platforms has helped feed the appetite for more sports documentary content,” Dahl notes. “It gives us all another way to reach and engage audiences with an even greater variety of stories and how they’re told.”

Network executives such as Dahl and NBC Sports Group’s Levy are hoping to take advantage of an upward trajectory by utilizing straight- to-consumer delivery methods and over-the-top outlets such as Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and Epix despite a marketplace flooded with competition.

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NFL Films’ LT: The Life & Times, a documentary profiling New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor

Still, cable remains a prime destination. The NFL Network, the league’s U.S. cable net, announced in September that it would be adding two series to its original programming line-up, including Football Town from Leftfield Pictures (Pawn StarsAlone) chronicling a high school football team based at the northernmost point in the U.S. The network’s schedule will now boast 31 hours of original unscripted and documentary programming.

NBC Sports Films, meanwhile, hopes to further expand its storytelling efforts through long-form content focused on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and a second undisclosed NHL film, while brainstorming sessions are underway surrounding three additional topics: horse racing; NBC motorsports properties Nascar, Formula One, IndyCar and Motocross; and the English Premiere League, which NBC recently signed to a six-year contract extension worth roughly US$1 billion.

“The way we’re looking at it short-term is we’ve identified that we’ll potentially do four [films] in 2016 and then we’ll assess after that and maybe do more in 2017,” Levy explained.

“We’re not looking to dilute [the genre], we’re looking to make these viewing opportunities special.”

  • This article first appeared in the current September/October 2015 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.