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Have sporting documentaries made their way into your viewing history yet? It is without question that sporting documentaries are becoming more and more popular with different sports and avenues being explored. The rise of the sports documentary comes as no surprise with the popularity of the sporting industry and the appetite for insight; combining the two for an in-depth multi-episode story which has proved to be a great recipe for viewing
Sports documentaries do not fixate on only a few parts of the story, they encapsulate the back-story behind the rivalries and show the audience a more rounded picture through film, for example the 1977 film ‘Sunday in Hell’ based on the 1976 Paris - Roubaix cycling race. The change in consumer viewing habits may be a reason we are now seeing more episodic content, it has been said that it was the selling point for Michael Jordan when getting him on board for ‘The Last Dance’. The demand for subscription television with platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime has also played a large part in the rise of such documentaries by widening the audiences available. This program style allows viewers to experience a wider context, which is not the case with live sports. It was certainly the case with COVID-19 where we were starved of any live sport so the documentaries gave us the fix we desperately craved.
The thrilling aspect of these sporting documentaries is giving us unscripted drama, internal politics, rivalries, failures, and redemptions, which are all ingredients for a gripping watch. These elements have also engaged previously uninterested demographics. Unfortunately buying merch and front-row seats are a thing of the past with how up close and personal viewers can get with this access to all areas documentaries.
The delving deeper approach that the sporting documentary provides is allowing viewers to see behind-the-scenes, never seen before aspects of sports. This new look shows there is more to each sport than maybe first thought, for example, Drive to Survive is about to release its 5th season, and is proving to be extremely successful.
The documentary is based on the Formula 1 season and shows the technicalities involved in the sport rather than what fans see on the surface of fast cars driving around a track. The popularity of Drive to Survive has created a cult-like following and has become the most-watched Netflix series in 33 countries, due to its intimate access. The latest release of Break Point is showing player-focused episodes which allow fans to feel closer to the athletes with one-to-one interviews, showing them as slightly less superhuman.
The rise of sporting documentaries has also allowed a spotlight to shine on grassroots-level sports which in some cases may miss out on mainstream coverage. Netflix’s cheerleading series ‘Cheer’ gained a mass audience and following for what would be considered a relatively niche sport. Peter Crouch’s ‘Save Our Beautiful Game’ and Freddie Flintoff’s ‘Field of Dreams’ highlighted the struggles of grassroots level sports, giving them the coverage that they would not normally receive and showing a different perspective. It has also given the opportunity for viewers to see the challenge of sports beyond the elite level with Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney showing the journey of acquiring Wrexham AFC and exploring its story as an underdog ‘that the world can root for’.
The future shows a real lineup of upcoming series with many areas left to explore, including the new PGA Tour and Golf’s Major Championship series and Guinness Six Nations Rugby Series. The questions are will the success continue, and what avenue will be explored next?