For years, there were two producers of sports documentaries that were head and shoulders above everybody else when it came to story-telling and production value: ESPN and HBO. I would stop dead in my tracks whenever one of the two would release a new documentary on TV. However, as time marches on, the natural order is eventually challenged, and the new kid on the block is giving the established giants a run for their money: Netflix.
The streaming service had previously made a name releasing some pretty great original, scripted programming. Shows like Stranger Things, Ozark, and now Squid Game have become part of the water cooler conversation and have quickly become some of the best series to watch on TV. As Netflix naturally looks to expand its footprint in the ever more competitive world of mainstream content creation, they’ve decided that it’s time to finally get serious and be a major contender in the world of sports documentaries. ESPN and HBO have slowly let their guard down, each making their own unique miscalculations that have cleared a path for Netflix to take over as number 1.
ESPN had already dipped its feet into the sports documentary pool by 2007, having produced Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos among a few others. With the network’s 30th anniversary just a couple years away, an idea was hatched by columnist Bill Simmons and producer Connor Schell: 30 films (usually 1 hour long, but sometimes 2 hours) by 30 filmmakers, documenting 30 major events in sports from the last 30 years. The series was dubbed 30 for 30 and would begin airing in October 2009 and quickly became a major success. The initial slate of films (now known as Volume I) would dive into a diverse array of topics from the 1988 trade that saw Wayne Gretzky become a member of the Los Angeles Kings, Michael Jordan’s time as a minor league professional baseball player, the origins of fantasy sports with a rotisserie fantasy baseball league, the Boston Red Sox’s historic comeback against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, and Terry Fox’s journey across Canada for cancer research that was tragically cut short.
Filmmakers seemingly had the creative freedom to tell these stories in whatever way they saw fit including the use of popular music. It was commonplace to see a 30 for 30 film with a great soundtrack and some crisply-edited montages. ESPN would almost immediately greenlight more documentaries including more 30 for 30 volumes of 30 films each. The series is currently in the middle of Volume IV, and while it’s still mostly adhered to the original vision of 30 unique, 1-hour films, the audience has slowly started to get bombarded by multi-part films, sometimes spanning 4 hour-long parts. The trend started in 2016 with the release of O.J.: Made in America, a 5-part series that received wide critical acclaim and would even take home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Of course, ESPN would also produce the runaway smash-hit The Last Dance, which would cement the future of multi-part documentary events for the network.
Even though Netflix would release the series outside of the U.S., it has a distinct 30 for 30 vibe complete with an awesome soundtrack, stellar montages and was even helmed by Jason Hehir, an ESPN Films veteran who had directed the incredible Fab Five documentary for the network. As a result of the success of The Last Dance, ESPN has future documentary series focusing on Tom Brady and Magic Johnson, both set to release later this year. While the epic multi-part documentary makes a lot of sense for athletes and teams that transcend sports, I can’t say the same about the 4-part 30 for 30’s about South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius and the 1986 New York Mets. The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius was a bloated, needlessly exploitative mess that feels more like a tabloid piece than a sports documentary. As for Once Upon a Time in Queens (focusing on the ’86 Mets), I can’t imagine all 4 parts would hold the attention of anyone but New York Mets fans or avid baseball fans. ESPN tends not to announce their future installments of 30 for 30 until a week or two before they release, but it’s hard to imagine that there will any shortage of stuffy, multi-part documentaries that could have easily been presented as an hour (or two)-long documentary like the series initially set out to do.
HBO doesn’t have a spotless track record by any means, but when they get something right, it’s usually a home run (or grand slam in some cases). HBO would establish themselves as a force in sports documentaries in 2001 with the release of Hard Knocks, a series spot-lighting different NFL team’s training camp each season. The show offered a rare glimpse into the day-to-day lives and antics of professional athletes, and is still running today in its 16th season. 24/7 began airing in 2007 and offered audiences a behind-the-scenes look into how boxers trained and prepared for their fights, following both entrants in the weeks leading up to the fight. HBO would experiment with the format, following NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson in the lead-up to the 2010 Daytona 500, and they would even follow the 2 NHL teams in the month-long lead-up to the Winter Classic on three occasions starting in 2010. HBO would produce some great documentary films as well, including Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, Broad Street Bullies, and Andre the Giant (yes, I know wrestling is scripted, but I’m still counting it!).
However, one film has come along that has put a black eye on the face of HBO’s sports documentaries: Tiger. Unfortunately, the documentary feels more like a tabloid piece and is very one-sided. The documentary makes use of archive footage and interviews with his former caddy, former friends and acquaintances to paint a picture of Tiger Woods as a deeply unhappy man who was basically pushed into his place in the golf world because of his overbearing parents. The problem is that the documentary makes no effort to interview Tiger or anyone currently in his corner to give the other side of the story. Those of you familiar with HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary might be noticing a pattern developing here. Leaving Neverland documents the alleged sexual abuse by Michael Jackson from the perspective of two survivors (Wade Robson and James Safechuck). The problem with the documentary was that the survivors prove to be very unreliable narrators. The two stories they shared had details that didn’t add up and prompted the Jackson family to produce their own documentary as a response. Now we have two, very one-sided documentaries about Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse allegations and we’re seemingly no closer to the truth. There’s also their recent film covering the effects on COVID-19 on sports, The Day Sports Stood Still.
While this documentary is not a bad idea, it feels too soon to be able to cover this topic properly and would have fared much better with a few years to let the events breathe and gain more information. But, HBO thought it was necessary to pump out just a year after the world shut down. When looking at both Tiger, The Day Sports Stood Still and Leaving Neverland in context, it paints HBO’s documentary films as dishonest, opportunistic and makes one wonder what other information was left out, or flat-out lied about previously in their documentaries. One hopes that HBO will get back to producing less-biased, more honest documentaries, but I will be watching their documentaries with a lot more suspicion from now on.
While the sports documentary giants were getting fat and comfortable behind the walls of their seemingly impenetrable castles, Netflix has quietly come along to challenge the status quo. The streaming service initially found success in this domain by following HBO’s 24/7 model with the show Last Chance U. The series follows a group of troubled youth playing football for junior colleges hoping to make the most of their last chance at achieving football glory and going to the NFL. Last Chance U would even get a spin-off focusing on junior college basketball. Netflix would also apply this model to the world of professional soccer, focusing on some of the biggest clubs in the world: Boca Juniors, Juventus, Barcelona and Sunderland.
However, their biggest hit with this format, by far, is the incredible Formula 1: Drive to Survive. For North Americans, Formula 1 hasn’t always been the most accessible sport to track. Most of the races are on in the early hours of Sunday when most of us would rather be catching up on some much needed sleep and there’s only a very small marketing presence of the sport here. Formula 1: Drive to Survive has managed to break through this barrier by simply going team-by-team, driver-by-driver to tell their own stories while showcasing the incredible danger the drivers put themselves into each time they enter their cars. While the average sports fan might have already been able to identify Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, drivers like Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas have become household names among sports fans. Formula 1 is now steadily growing in popularity in North America, and this show is clearly the one to thank. But this only covers one side to Netflix’s success in sports documentaries.
When it comes to standalone sports documentary films, Netflix has quickly established themselves as true players. Icarus was an investigative film covering the Russian doping scandal that has put a black eye on the entire Russian sports federation. Screwball is a humourous look at the steroid scandal in baseball involving an anti-aging expert-turned drug dealer with clients such as Melky Cabrera, Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. It’s a case where the truth is stranger and more funny than one could write if you asked them to make the story up. Off the success of these documentaries, Netflix has started two series that have become must-watch for any sports fan. First is their Untold series: these are more traditional sports documentaries, with topics that would fit right in alongside ESPN’s 30 for 30. Perhaps most notable of the topics covered was the infamous Malice at the Palace, in which members of the Indiana Pacers, most notably Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, went into the Detroit crowd and fought fans. The documentary sheds light on aspects that were not widely known, such as the lack of proper police presence to de-escalate the situation and the roles played by a couple fans that took things too far. Crime & Penalties covers the absolutely insane, true story of the Danbury Trashers, a team owned by a mob boss and operated by his 17-year-old son, whose vision of the team was a mix of The Mighty Ducks movies and WWE.
Breaking Point covers the mental health challenges of American pro tennis player, Mardy Fish and how his mental state was at its absolute worst when he achieved his dream of being a top-8 ranked player in the world. Deal with the Devil tells Christy Martin’s story as she rose through the ranks of professional boxing while dealing with the toxic relationship she had with her former husband/trainer. The other series Netflix started is Bad Sport: combining sports documentaries with the true crime genre, and there’s definitely no shortage of topics for this kind of series. Topics range from the 1994 Arizona State basketball point-shaving scandal, the Juventus match-fixing scandal that saw them stripped of the league title and demoted to Serie B (also known as Calciopoli), and the 2002 Olympic figure skating scandal that saw the French judge unfairly give the advantage to the Russian pair over the Canadians for the gold medal. While I do have my problems with the true crime genre, this series doesn’t glorify the events portrayed and simply tells an enthralling crime story that just so happens to be tangled in sports. Netflix clearly has some good people in place to oversee this kind of content and the future looks extra bright.
While ESPN and HBO aren’t going anywhere right away with regards to their place on the sports documentary hierarchy, they will simply have to do better if they don’t want Netflix to sneak up on them and claim the role of king. ESPN has certainly found something that works when it comes to multi-part, epic sports documentaries, treating too many of their stories with this kind of mentality simply cheapens the effect the next time they decide to tell a story that way. In other words, save the epic story-telling for the epic stories. HBO has developed a bit of a reputation of being dishonest and opportunistic, which is a huge problem with documentary filmmaking as a whole, and they are just another film producer that seeks profit over integrity. Meanwhile, Netflix has risen up, scooping up stories left behind by the other two and are creating a demand for products that people didn’t even know they wanted. Netflix has tapped into an incredible power, now if they can only continue to use this power for good and not turn to the dark side like their main sports documentary competitors are starting to.