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Factual goals: sports titles on the rise

The sports documentary series has returned to the big leagues, as SVOD services order shows that their algorithms demand, thematic pay channels commission content for the engaged audiences and the 2018 FIFA World Cup rolls around this summer in Russia. Andy Fry reports from the sidelines

From NFL Superbowl to the English Premier League via Formula One motor racing, live sport has always been a fundamental part of the free and pay TV ecosystem. By comparison, sports-based factual programming is a specialist niche. However, there are key scenarios where it comes into its own.

One is the run up to major events like the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where sports-themed content can either generate excitement in advance of the event, act as a kind of programming glue between live match transmissions or – in some cases – provide sports content to networks that don’t have access to live rights.

In April, for example, HBO Latin America and HBO Europe will air their first ever original coproduction, Destino Rusia 2018, a ten-part factual series that will provide “a unique, compelling and intimate look at football and the World Cup,” says Roberto Ríos, HBO Latin America’s corporate VP of original production. Spanning twelve countries, the 10x30mins series will present close-up accounts of leading players and their entourage. It follows previous HBO Lat Am projects Destino South Africa and Destino Brazil, which were aired prior to the previous two World Cups.

Something similar is happening over at A+E Networks International’s History channel, which is running a 14-day 24/7 ‘mega event’ called The History of Football prior to Russia 2018. Due to air in 160 countries, the event will comprise 40 hours of content, backed by various social media activations.

A+E Networks International’s executive managing director, Patrick Vien, says the decision to throw so much weight behind this project “came from a recognition that, in 2018, everything in the world of content and TV needs to be event-driven and very immersive, so we went looking for an idea that could merit occupying a big amount of real estate, which is how we came to the World Cup”.

“The World Cup is a moment in time when people all over the world get very passionate and hyper-connected about the same thing, so it’s a great opportunity for History as a storyteller reaching out to 200 territories,” he adds.

Vien calls the project “the biggest international programming initiative History has undertaken” and says it will cover a “multiplicity of perspectives”. Anchoring the event will be global documentaries including History’s Greatest Moments in Football, Football’s Greatest: Head to Head and Football Godfathers, which comes from Zig Zag Productions, and will give insights into the minds and strategies of the world’s greatest club managers.

There will also be localised programming in markets like the UK, Germany, Italy and Japan, where there will be an original special, The History of Japanese Football, while Latin America will air a biography of superstar player Lionel Messi. Among a slate of short form series will be The Referee, about an FA-qualified female ethnic Muslim official in the UK.

Outside this kind of event-based activity, sports documentaries have typically been used as shoulder content on sports channels, the most celebrated example being ESPN’s 30 for 30, which has been running since 2009.
A compelling showcase for sports-based storytelling, 30 for 30 has covered everything from Olympic scandals to mafia infiltration of college sports, via a history of the Harlem Globetrotters, the flamboyant world of professional wrestling and the infamous ice hockey show-down between the Russians and Americans at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

More recently, BT Sport in the UK has followed a similar strategy, producing films about the world of referees, the Bradford City fire and the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon. In early 2018, it aired a documentary about the pressures and rewards of making it as a professional footballer, based on Michael Calvin’s book No Hunger in Paradise.

Head of BT Sport Simon Green says: “No Hunger in Paradise explores the pathways for young players to the top, hearing from those involved at local community centres and youth talent scouts, as well as taking a look at some of the most elite academies.”

The big disruption in this area, perhaps not surprisingly, has been an invasion of the sports field by Amazon and Netflix. Partly driven by a desire for event programming that will appeal to male subscribers and partly by the desire to be viewed as a good future home for live sports rights, the two SVOD giants have backed some high quality productions.

On Netflix, a lot of attention has been paid to productions like Last Chance U (above), which is like a modern day version of Steve James’ seminal doc Hoop Dreams. Here, the focus is on a group of gifted but troubled young players trying to reach the NFL big time. A third season is coming, though the subject is shifting from the college featured in seasons one and two.

Just as interesting is the battle between the two for prized access to elite sports clubs. Netflix, for example, recently announced plans for Juventus FC, a four-hour docuseries following the on-and off-field stories of the Italian club.

Amazon has forged a similar arrangement with Manchester City in the UK, and has also greenlit Six Dreams, a docu-series that will follow six individuals (three players, two coaches and a club president) throughout their 2017-2018 season of Spain’s elite La Liga.

Amazon has also enjoyed acclaim for All Or Nothing, which first focused on the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, and is now set to go behind the scenes at Man City; plus the ‘winningest programme in college football’, the Michigan Wolverines; and the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ rugby team.

Of course, it’s important to note that the sports market doesn’t really operate like other genres, because ultimate decisions about access to content or talent typically resides with leagues, clubs, agents and federations, many of which are superbly efficient at extracting value from IP.

The Amazon and Netflix projects make sense as promotional exercises, and sometimes brands gain access to content as part of sponsorships (headphone brand Beats recently created a behind-the-scenes branded content series with Sky Media and boxer Anthony Joshua).

Otherwise, a lot of content sits with agencies like IMG, where it is packaged up and licensed to broadcasters around landmark events or as regular magazine shows such as Trans World Sport. There are also long-running brand-supported franchises such as the Sunset & Vine-produced Gillette World Sport and Mobil 1 the Grid (pictured above – the latter based on motorsports content).

A good example of how the industry operates was Eurosport’s 2017 link up with the Fédération Française de Tennis on La Decima, an access documentary about Rafa Nadal’s historic achievement of ten French Open wins. It was, says Eurosport senior VP of content, production and events Arnaud Simon, an example of how the channel “continually looks at ways to enhance and complement our coverage of the world’s greatest sporting events to help fans get closer to the action”.

Aside from the issue of access, Danny Fenton, founder and CEO of UK producer Zig Zag, says another challenge in the sports genre is that a lot of the top current talent are too busy with their day jobs to take part in sports-based shows.

“This is why a lot of the focus in sports-themed factual is on up-and-coming talent or recently retired athletes with recognition and experience,” he says.

Fenton’s company has made around 200 hours of sports content, including The Football Show and The Next Jamie Vardy (above), a series for Sky that went on the hunt for non-league players capable of going professional (just as Leicester City’s championship-winning striker Vardy did).

However, producers “often make series with ex-footballers and managers, or use well-known talent in a celebrity context”, says Fenton. “Examples would be Gladiator: Benn v Eubank or Freddie Flintoff Vs the World. Ex-sports stars have a competitive edge that they never really lose – and that makes for great TV.”

Mainstream distributors tend not to prioritise sport, instead jumping on opportunities when the arise. Cineflix Rights, for example, has a Muhammad Ali documentary on its slate, while FremantleMedia International has a Serena Williams programme nestling in its catalogue. FMI was also a partner with Fulwell 73 on Class of 1992, a football-themed documentary that it successfully distributed worldwide.

However, one veteran executive who sees opportunities in the sports sector is Peter Dunits, who will debut his new specialist factual/sports distribution company, 22 Media International, at MIPTV.

“There are openings for sport content, but the challenge is that it often comes to broadcasters in a fragmented way – odd episodes they don’t know how to schedule,” he says. “My goal is to present them with aggregated, themed and relevant packages of shows that are easy for them to place.”

In Cannes, Dunits will be presenting content from Zig Zag, FourFourTwo Films, Spark Media Partners and Goalhanger Films (the latter co-founded by Gary Lineker, which is a big help in getting access to talent). “As a result, we have a mix of long-form and short-form – all with great access and insights,” he adds. Titles include Goalhanger’s Keane & Viera: Best of Enemies (pictured top) and Spark Media’s Iron Men, a documentary about the final farewell to West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground.

It’s very noticeable that the sports factual field is dominated by football, which Dunits says “reflects the reality of the marketplace”. There are – of course – some exceptions to this: Red Bull Media House, for example, has become a content powerhouse thanks to its activities in motorsports and action sports.

Amid the endless array of action and insight videos that it seeds via its own channels or third party platforms, Red Bull has also had success with TV-style programming like The Smoke that Thunders and The Dawn Wall, which was well-received at Amsterdam’s IDFA festival.

Motorsports is perhaps the biggest area of activity outside football, with Amazon’s line-up including a series following F1 team McLaren Racing and another about the Le Mans endurance race – Le Mans: Racing is Everything. At MIPTV, Beyond Distribution will also be launching Grudge Race, a format based on a US show that airs on NBC Sports Network.

On the international market, Sarah McCormack, Beyond Distribution’s senior VP of acquisitions for the UK, Europe and kids, believes it can play out across a wider range of channels “because it has a kind of Top Gear quality about it that appeals across demographics”.

One emerging area of activity is eSports, which is making inroads into the traditional sports audience. Keen to ride this wave, Gamingzone Entertainment, Bomanbridge Media and Passion Distribution teamed up late last year to launch eSports reality format Gamerz, based on a show that first saw the light of day in the Nordic region on video game platforms including Twitch.

The show offers online gaming talent an opportunity to become eSport professionals. According to Emmanuelle Namiech, CEO of Passion Distribution, “it presents a format which for the first time bridges the worlds of eSports and mainstream reality TV”.