Why sports are swarming to TV platforms

Fly on the wall: Whether it’s making Wrexham a global brand, reviving F1 or just chasing plain vanity, everyone’s queuing up to be captured in real time… here’s why sports are swarming to TV platforms

  • Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ series has hugely boosted exposure for Formula One
  • ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ has helped turn the non-league side into a global brand
  • Newcastle are the next Premier League club to be followed by Amazon Prime 

Next week it will be Augusta National. This Sunday, Melbourne’s Albert Park. Earlier this month, Twickenham and the Stade de France. 

These days, not a weekend passes without a camera crew stalking sport stars in the heat and hidden corners of battle. Over time, those rare glimpses are stitched together to form the next behind-the-scenes documentary. It is an industry snowballing on a swelling number of streaming platforms.

‘Every sport, every team and every individual wants one of these shows made about them,’ says Leo Pearlman, executive producer of hit Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die.

Rugby union is the latest to peel back the curtain, with Netflix having recorded every collision of this year’s Six Nations. Formula One’s Drive to Survive is filming a sixth series. Tennis (Break Point) and golf (Full Swing) recently released their first and have had a second commissioned. A documentary on last year’s Tour de France is out this summer.

Newcastle are the next Premier League club being followed by Amazon Prime, while Disney’s Welcome to Wrexham continues to chart the Hollywood makeover of north Wales.

Netflix’s popular ‘Drive to Survive’ series has helped bring hordes of new fans to Formula One

Hollywood owners Ryan Reynolds (left) and Rob McElhenney (right) are continuing to profit from Disney’s ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ series, which goes behind the scenes at the Welsh club

Apple TV will air a show on Boris Becker next week and one on Lewis Hamilton later this year, while Netflix are releasing a series about David Beckham, whose media company have also filmed Ronnie O’Sullivan for an upcoming documentary.

So, how did we get here? Which teams or sports could be next? And where will all this lead?

Contacts from across the world, keen for their own slice of the pie, have reached out to Ian Holmes, the man who secured F1’s deal with Netflix. ‘I’ve had some weird and wonderful requests,’ he says. ‘One from polo.’ He reckons rodeo, or downhill skiing, could make for fascinating TV.

Even more intriguingly, Holmes has held conversations ‘with certain people at certain organisations’ who are exploring a significant plot twist. A change of role for the likes of Netflix and Amazon. From streamers to sports owners.

Apple TV are preparing to launch a show about former tennis star Boris Becker later this week

Marty Callner was at his dinner table in Beverley Hills when, all of a sudden, he went quiet.

‘I put my head down and didn’t say anything for about 15 minutes,’ recalls the veteran director, who has worked across comedy and music with likes of Robin Williams and The Rolling Stones. ‘Then I came up and said, “I think I have an incredible idea!”.’

What soon crystallised in his mind was Hard Knocks, which first aired in 2001 and has been described as ‘the first sports-based reality series’ in TV history.

‘It was behind the scenes, it was clandestine, it was forbidden territory,’ says Callner. ‘Back then it was very revolutionary. It’s real drama and real life is better than anything you can write.’

More than two decades on, the show continues to take viewers inside American football’s brutal world. The NFL even have the power to force franchises to take part.

Sportsmail’s top five sport documentaries 

1. The Last Dance Ten-part Netflix docu-series chronicling Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 season with the Chicago Bulls. Released to huge critical acclaim in 2020.

2. Living With Lions Behind-the-scenes film of the Lions’ victorious rugby tour of South Africa in 1997. Raw passion and ahead of its time.

3. Graham Taylor — An Impossible Job Warts-and-all documentary for Channel 4 on Graham Taylor’s failure to lead England to the 1994 World Cup. Must be seen to be believed.

4. Drive to Survive Annual Netflix look at the Formula One season. Changed the game for sports documentaries.

5. Sunderland ’Til I Die Netflix series charting Sunderland’s relegation from the Championship, then a second season showing them in League One. Much more than football.

On this side of the Atlantic, behind-the-scenes documentaries started to appear before the millennium. An Impossible Job chronicled Graham Taylor’s failure to take England to the 1994 World Cup. Living With Lions followed the British Lions to South Africa in 1997. Premier Passions covered Sunderland’s relegation that same year.

‘None of those guys knew what they were really opening themselves up to,’ says Pearlman. ‘It was pre-reality TV. I don’t think they understood the implication of allowing the cameras there. In a way that that’s what makes them brilliant, but also in a way, it at times feels a little exploitative.

‘If Premier Passions or the Graham Taylor one came out now, in this social media world we now live in, I feel like people would end up leaving the sport they love, turning to drink or killing themselves.’

These days, however, the appeal of these shows for the subjects is rather more obvious. ‘They get attention, and today everybody is an attention whore,’ claims Callner.

But this is about more than vanity. ‘They list Hard Knocks as one of the reasons for big the success of the NFL,’ adds Callner. The same goes for Drive to Survive, which has helped send F1’s popularity spiralling – particularly in America.

Last year, ESPN signed a deal to broadcast races in the US worth a reported £75million a year. The previous contract, completed in 2019 when Drive to Survive first launched, was worth only £4m.

Ex-England, Watford and Aston Villa head coach Graham Taylor is pictured in May 1990

‘F1 was a relatively small sport in the US but we’re enjoying a massive growth spurt,’ says Holmes. Or, as Pearlman puts it: ‘They’ve created a new generation and audience for a sport that was previously dying on its a***.’

Premier League clubs that have invited Amazon in-house see the benefits, too.

‘It was less about the finances and more about the bigger picture,’ says a source who was involved with Arsenal’s documentary last season. ‘People didn’t understand Mikel Arteta or (sporting director) Edu that well. We felt the documentary helped people understand and feel a bit closer to everything we’re doing, so there was a lot less criticism.’

That went for players, too. ‘As soon as you humanise everyone, people are more compassionate, more respectful and that gave them a bit of space to be a little bit braver on and off the pitch,’ adds the source.

Further down the pyramid, rewards can be even more stark. ‘Sunderland were genuinely sold twice because of the show,’ says Pearlman, referencing Stewart Donald’s 2018 takeover and Kryil Louis-Dreyfus buy-out three years later – following two series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die. ‘They weren’t looking at Sunderland prior to that.’

His production company, Fulwell 73, had first offered to produce Sunderland’s end-of-season DVD for free 10 years ago. That pitch failed, but they later returned with another plan.

‘We were pitching a bunch of mid-table Premier League clubs but right when we were going to close a deal I had this kind of aneurysm,’ recalls Pearlman. ‘Rather than doing it with a mid-table club, why don’t we do it with a club where there is actually going to be drama?’

He suggested his team Sunderland. Netflix liked the idea, so did the club’s owner.

Eddie Howe’s Newcastle are set to be the next subject of Amazon Prime’s ‘All or Nothing’ series

‘Ellis Short was desperately trying to sell the club so the pitch was really simple to him: “I’m offering you 300 million eyeballs as the club gets promoted back to the Premier League”,’ says Pearlman.

As it transpired, the club were relegated to League One. ‘The upside was we got to make a show about the people, the fans, the region in a way that we would never have been able to with a club who were having success,’ he adds.

A third series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die will come out later this year. But Pearlman feels one-club shows about sport’s top teams have had their time. ‘I think it been done to death,’ he says.

‘When Premier League clubs first began to open their doors, there was a bidding war from the big streamers at every occasion. Now the appetite from everyone other than Amazon is pretty low.’

Instead, producers are thinking bigger. Pearlman is now working on Captains, which went behind-the-scenes with skippers from all nations at the Qatar World Cup. Drive to Survive, which first aired on Netflix in 2019, was spawned from similar thinking.

Netflix documentary series ‘Full Swing’ gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall look at golf’s PGA Tour 

Holmes explains: ‘One of the F1 teams was talking to Amazon about a project that worked with a particular team. We were happy to look into it – and indeed did – but we felt, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a project that focuses on all of the teams and the sport in general?”.

‘We recognised that there’s no reason why a team at the middle or back of the grid hasn’t got just as compelling a story as the team at the front. Many people could argue they have more of a story. We almost accidentally stumbled across these personalities in the team principles that have grown over the years.’

The show’s fourth series, released last year, was No1 on Netflix in 33 countries. ‘The things Netflix look for, apart from how many people watch it, is completion rate and speed of completion,’ says Holmes. ‘Drive to Survive was totally off the charts for completion for its genre. It was up there with crime.’

Unfortunately, such success can bring its own problems, too. Alpine driver Pierre Gasly has claimed ‘some scenes are kind of made up’, while the controversial finale to the 2021 season – when rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton shared a one-lap shootout for the championship – fuelled fears that those lines separating sport and drama had become blurred.

‘There has been comment – is it created? Are stories created?’ Holmes concedes. ‘I think that’s unfair.’

What cannot be questioned is that the show has changed this sector forever. ‘We’ve seen this big shift to the Drive to Survive model,’ says Pearlman. ‘Those shows exist over a longer period of time because it’s a soap opera, it’s drama.

F1 driver Pierre Gasly claimed that some of Drive Survive’s storylines were ‘kind of made up’

‘It’s not about a moment in time for that club. It doesn’t have to be the biggest name, the biggest team, the biggest sport. It just has to be great storytelling. We’ve nowhere near scratched the surface in that respect.’

Holmes agrees: ‘The sport is almost background. I’m interested in the psyche, the people and the personalities.’

It is no wonder, then, that people want to pick Holmes’ brain. And it is no wonder platforms might eye a more starring role. ‘I’m waiting for when the streamers don’t go after live rights, but start to go after the ownership of a sport,’ says Pearlman. ‘At the moment, by creating a bigger marketplace, you’re upping the cost of doing business with that sport the next time around.’

By owning part of a sport, however, platforms can reap more financial rewards for growing the game. Pearlman adds: ‘That is something that I think in the next two three years we’re going to start to see.’

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