How sports docs reached ‘oversaturation’ after ‘Last Dance’

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Even compared to the overall growth in television that has come with the rise of streaming, sports documentaries are a winning gift.

Popular with audiences and frequent critical acclaim, television networks have produced feature documentaries and docuseries for decades exploring major milestones, historical events and major figures such as Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth, featured in films such as HBO. Named for “When It Was a Game,” ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, Showtime’s “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” and Oscar winner “OJ: Made in America.”

But that was before “The Last Dance.”

Hit by the pandemic shutdown and the absence of live sports, the ESPN/Netflix co-production epic centered on enigmatic superstar Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s premiered in April 2020 and quickly became a real hit. blockbuster. Set against the backdrop of social change, the 10-episode series has captivated millions of sports fans and non-sports fans with its never-before-seen footage, over-the-top personalities and thrilling action. In the process, it had a knock-on effect on sports stories on television that can still be felt today.

“It really shook the industry,” said former HBO Sports president Ross Greenberg. “It came at the perfect time during a pandemic, when people needed something to watch. I also felt the trigger [to] Streamers and networks see it as a great form of storytelling. “

“The Last Dance” was followed by an explosion of sports documentaries, especially streaming, covering a kaleidoscopic variety of platforms, characters and subject matter: Beyond the perennial fly-by glimpses of NFL training camp and Stanley Field, the Cup Final is a project about Tiger Woods and Naomi Osaka’s personal and professional struggles; a side-by-side, season-long account of the Formula 1 championship and a struggling football club; and Tom Brady, Bubba Wallace Intimate portraits of the Warriors, Derrick Jeter, Stephen Curry, John McEnroe and many others highlight not only their accomplishments but their lives on and off the court.

A large number of projects are even focused on only one team. The Los Angeles Lakers have played a pivotal role in three documentaries and a scripted series — “They Called Me Magic” on Apple TV+, “Shaq” on HBO, “Legacy: The True Story of the Los Angeles Lakers” on Hulu and HBO’s “Winning Time: Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” — only in 2022. The second season of “Winning Time” will be released this year. A dramatization of the origin story of the future Hall of Famer that premiered earlier at Peacock.)

Michael Jordan, number 23 of the Chicago Bulls, lays up against the Detroit Pistons during the 1989 NBA season

A photo from “The Last Dance.” Michael Jordan, #23 of the Chicago Bulls, lays up against the Detroit Pistons during the 1989 NBA season in Detroit.

(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

As the streaming wars continue to heat up and an ongoing writers’ strike puts pressure on unscripted content to fill the void, the sports documentary craze shows no signs of abating.

Serena Williams, who has appeared in several documentaries, recently announced that she will be the subject of a new ESPN documentary. Netflix will premiere a documentary about football superstar David Beckham, who will also be part of an upcoming Prime Video documentary series about Manchester United’s historic 1998-99 season in During the season, the team won the three most important trophies in the sport within a span of 10 days.

Still, the sporting boom has begun to raise questions among some of the genre’s biggest names. Are there too many sports documentaries in the works for a project like “The Last Dance” to break through — or for fans to keep up?

“There’s definitely a danger of oversaturation,” said Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza. “At this point, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out and be fresh and original.”

Greenberg, who now leads his own production company that produced the recent Netflix documentary “Bill Russell: The Legend,” said that while the genre is “too rich, with so many great stories” that the material Not enough, but documentaries need a “unique point” point of view and not be in danger of telling the same story over and over again. “

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich added: “Is the field of sports documentaries saturated? Yes. But it has an audience.”

Zenovich said she’s not surprised by the boom in the sports documentary genre. Her first sports-related project was 2014’s “Fantastic Lies” for “30 on 30,” which covered the case of three members of Duke University’s lacrosse team who were falsely accused of rape.

The baseball teams of the two countries took a selfie in the rest area

Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos on Showtime’s “Bad Hombres.”

(show time)

“When I was there, I realized, ‘Oh my God, there are so many good stories in sports,'” she said in an interview last month. “They can be so compelling and contain everything.” [needs] From streaming and others, it’s become a whole business. “

She added: “Audiences in this day and age want documentaries about true crime, celebrities and sports. They don’t want politics. They want to get lost and remember what their favorite athletes did or what their competitors did. They The desire for athletes to be open and authentic, to show their humanity and flaws.”

The more sports there are, the more fans there will be. Series that follow pro or college teams throughout the season have fueled interest in a broader examination of athletes and their personalities.

“Fans now expect that kind of coverage,” Showtime Sports’ Espinoza said.

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Another factor fueling interest in sports-themed fare is a growing commitment to exploring sports through social justice or other issues that reflect the state of the country, according to experts. “The Last Dance” and “OJ: Made in America” ​​charted how race, celebrity and wider culture shaped the rise and fall of former soccer superstar OJ Simpson, setting a new standard that other projects are determined to emulate.

“It’s about providing a different context,” Greenberg said. “Otherwise, it’s not worth doing.” He insists that the Bill Russell project explores issues of race that are “still very relevant today.” It shows the fierce struggle for civil rights. “

Espinosa echoed this sentiment: “It’s not about telling sports stories for the sake of telling sports stories. It’s about understanding how we illuminate the human condition, social issues and cultural development.”

He pointed to Showtime’s 2020 film “Bad Hombres,” about the Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos, a minor league bi-national baseball team that played half of its home games in Texas during the 2019 baseball season. conduct. “It’s a baseball perspective on immigration,” Espinosa said.

With a penchant for sports programming, he said Showtime has set out to differentiate its programming from “high-end, visually appealing, sophisticated theatrical projects.”

Despite all the pressures from increased competition, Zenovich said the sports documentary trend is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.

And, she added, “I want to make more.”

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