Sports documentary has been on a seemingly unstoppable rise over the last few years, particularly amongst streamer customers. And while documentary in general has hit hard times, sports docs have been more insulated than most. For producers, the trick now is to keep finding new angles, new precincts and new formats. Pippa Considine reports.

“The landscape has changed,” says Nick Mattingly, who directed Class of 92 in 2015 and now works with Gary Neville indie Buzz 16. Mattingly is thinking back ten years: “It was much harder to get documentaries about sports away.” There’s been a significant turnaround. “Now it feels as if we can get more generic human stories away, if they’re attached to sport.” 

The rise of the sports documentary goes hand in glove with the rise of the streamers. As they have acquired sports rights, they’ve looked for adjacent content to bolster that investment. Where they haven’t got rights, documentaries have been another way to feature sport.

Sports documentaries are not immune from the recent downturn. But figures from Ampere Analysis show Amazon, Warner Bros. Discovery, Netflix and Paramount all maintaining, or exceeding the number of sports documentary commissions internationally in the last year, compared with 2022/23. UK terrestrials have shrunk their order book, with the BBC ordering around half its 2022/23 total.

 “SVoD services continued to be the most prolific commissioner type,” says Zuzana Henkova senior analyst with Ampere. 

Apple is also in the game, with a slate that includes documentaries focused on some of the biggest names in sport, including an upcoming title about Lewis Hamilton.

Tactical nous

So, what sorts of sports documentaries are in demand? Since the success of Box to Box’s Formula 1 Drive to Survive series on Netflix, launched in 2019, shows that follow a season of sport are hot property. Then there are biopics, as well as extraordinary stories in sport, and stories with wider societal resonance. Another area of opportunity is sport with an entertainment twist. 

Box to Box has other shows that follow golf, cycling, rugby. They land on Netflix just before the next season, teeing up the audience. Prime Video does the same with its football club strand. “We launch All or Nothing ahead of the new season because that’s when it’s of most importance to football fans,” says Amazon MGM Studios/Prime Video unscripted executive Harjeet Chhokar. “It becomes an important part of our understanding of the sport, the league, the clubs and the players.” 

As well as looking for eyeballs, Chhokar says, “we also want to make documentaries that pass into ongoing culture and drive conversation.” 

Football is high on the agenda. (Disney has also found soccer success with Welcome to Wrexham.) But it’s not the only game drawing audiences. “There are big, powerful stories in all sports,” says Chhokar. “Just look at some of our recent successes with Ronnie O’Sullivan: The Edge of Everything or Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes.”

Clearly there’s a synergy where a platform has rights to live sport and where an indie provides coverage. Sky Sports, which has darts right in the UK has commissioned a three-parter, w/t Darts. Whisper TV, an expert in cricket coverage, was behind the Amazon Ben Stokes documentary.

There’s also a seam of documentaries where sport and social messages combine. Buzz 16, another producer of live sport, made Rylan: Football, Homophobia and Me for TNT Sports. It also delivered Bristol Bisons: Pride on the Pitch, alongside its role producing live Premiership rugby coverage for TNT. “One thing that’s been hugely successful for us is trying to find stories that have an important message for broadcasters as well,” says Buzz 16 director of content Tom Robinson. “TNT really wanted to engage with the homophobia discussion.”

Neo Studios, UK producers of Welcome to Wrexham, also made The Jesse Lingard Story: Untold for Channel 4, exploring mental health. Anouk Mertens, global CEO of Neo Studios sees “a big potential to explore those social, political stories within the context of sports.” 

Game plan

What is critical to the way that all sports documentary is going are the twin tenets of access and narrative. 

“Audiences just want to see behind the curtain. whether that’s the running of a sports organisation, the life of an athlete or a deep dive on a specific issue,” says Chhokar. “Beyond the achievements of an individual athlete it’s also important for a documentary to examine their complexities and character.”   

Box to Box has taken access and narrative within sport documentary to new heights, coming at a time when many sports people are more open to having their stories told. “It’s a perfect synergy of players understanding that the world’s changing and if they want their sport to keep growing, they should lean in” says Warren Smith, the indie’s head of sports and factual.

But it takes skill and determination. “It’s about how we break down those barriers so that we are getting that access and we are seen as different,” says Smith. The team is on it across the year, building relationships and trust “Being on the inside is key, making sure we’re in the right place at the right time.” The first season is critical, opening the right doors, “making them understand why you need to be there. Otherwise, you can’t do the job.” 

At Buzz 16, Mattingly also talks about trust. “We’re building a reputation. I’d like to think that they trust us to step into these spaces and they know we’ve got a track record of working and tackling these things in the right way.” His colleague Tom Robinson adds that it’s good to have familiarity with any names that they’re after, and with a track record working in live sport. “You’re not cold calling.” 

To keep the narrative drive also takes a certain kind of crew on the shoot. “You’ve got to be comfortable in the uncomfortable to make our shows,” says Warren Smith.…”to jump in a car when a player is feeling at their lowest ebb, or put your boom over their head at the most critical moment. You’ve just got to know when a no is a no and when a no is actually a yes or half yes/no. That comes with relationships and trust.”

Using new technology and deploying it skillfully has raised the access game. “Access is given by different cameras and hidden cameras, on-body cameras,” says Mertens at Neo. “There is quite a bit of innovation and interesting storylines to be built based on that.” 

Currently in production on a Thomas Müller documentary for Prime Video, Mertens says, “we have a mic on him as much as possible.”

At The Starting Line

Sport is at the heart of Sky’s identity. Coming up is a behind-the-scenes 3-parter on the world of darts, w/t Darts, produced by Dorothy St Pictures and Meadowlark Media. Streamers are big customers for sports docs. Amazon Prime Video has an untitled Roger Federer documentary in the pipeline, by Asif Kapadia and George Chignell, and directed by Kapadia and Joe Sabia, as well as boxing series Four Kings from Banijay’s Worker Bee and a feature-length documentary with German footballer Thomas Müller from Neo Studios plus the story of Manchester United’s 99 season from David Beckham’s Studio 99, Buzz 16 and John Battsek’s Ventureland. Studio 99 is also working on World War Shoe: Adidas v Puma for Disney + and with Fulwell 73 for an ESPN title on Real Madrid Galácticos. Netflix is lining up a fourth season of sport documentary series Untold and returning to indie Box to Box for follow on seasons of Drive to Survive, Full Swing and Break Point. Box to Box is also behind a new, six-part series following top sprinters for Netflix. It’s working with Dutch label Lusus on a series about Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff and an MLS soccer documentary for Apple TV+. Apple also has an unnamed documentary about Lewis Hamilton in the works. Noah Media has five feature films completing this year, financed by its own Content Fund and focused on extraordinary stories that come out of sport. She Looks Like Me premiered at SXSW this month, while its Carl Lewis film is locked. It also has commissions for the BBC and Sky. Disney’s FX channel in the US is backing a third series of Welcome to Wrexham, produced in the UK by Neo. British indie Harder Than You Think is working on paralympic feature doc Paris 2024: A New Revolution, as well as lining up 2025-2028 Road To LA, which will chart the Milano Cortina 2026 Paralympic Winter Games and LA 2028 Paralympic Games.

World of Sports

The Thomas Müller story, whilst based in Germany, is commissioned for worldwide release. One of the strengths of sports programming is its ability to cross borders. Often this comes in the form of local stories with global potential. “We look for the really relevant local talent and we build from there,” says Mertens. 

“Either it needs to be a huge, big name,” says Mertens. “Or it’s the unusual hero. And I do think that there is still a market for those.” 

UK indies are trusted. Chhokar cites a few: “Workerbee delivered impressive docs in the form of That Peter Crouch Film and Four Kings, Studio 99 have been great partners on 99 and Ronnie… 72 Films are top of the class…and these three are just the tip of the iceberg.”

At Noah Media, ceo John McKenna says: “the standard’s never been higher so that makes it really challenging because you’ve got to be really top tier to get commissioned or get cut through. ……A lot of the best filmmakers in the world have been operating in the sport arena.

“There probably was a landscape in the sport documentary world a couple of years ago, where there were a lot more mid-range films out there,” adds McKenna. “That’s maybe drying up now.”

Noah has its own in-house technology that helps to identify territories, audiences, potential partners and demographics to assess the viability of future projects.

“We’re focusing on extraordinary stories in and around sport,” says McKenna. Noah is relying on its experience as a premium documentary maker, with a slate including Hatton for Sky, Finding Jack Charlton and 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible for Netflix. 

McKenna cites Noah’s new feature doc, She Looks Like Me. “It doesn’t need anything other than brilliant storytelling, brilliant filmmakers,” he says. “It’s going to appeal to sports fans, because they’re into the drama and the jeopardy of a sporting set of rules and competition. But it’s going to appeal to a documentary fan because, actually, this film is about massive human themes and with a twist in the tail.”

Getting investment up front is not always possible. Noah has found a bold work around, setting up its own content fund. “A couple of years ago, we felt like we had access to some amazing stories. It would have taken quite a long time for us to get the commissioning money in place or to get it into production. But we took the risk.”  

With the first films now coming through, he describes “really good, collaborative conversations with projects that are hopefully going to get into production relatively quickly with other companies, both in the UK and in the US.”

Next season

What’s next for sports documentary? The Box to Box approach seems unstoppable. But, says Smith, “we’ve got to make sure that we’re not just doing the Drive to Survive of…” Each sport has its own geography.  Golf is the locker room and player dining. Cycling is on buses and the team dynamic. One project under discussion looks through the lens of deal making. 

“We have to hunt out the non-sports stories to make it feel like it actually crosses over to the wider audience,” says Smith. “The brilliant thing about sport is every year, every season, there’s fresh blood, there’s rookies, there’s new characters, there’s just a conveyor belt of new stories.”

At Neo, Mertens is disappointed that there isn’t more traction around women’s stories in sport. “Everyone is talking about and saying they want female stories. But actually, when it comes to it, I don’t see much appetite for platforms to actually step in massively on those women’s stories.”

Mertens sees opportunity in bringing entertainment into the mix. Neo has developed a format “where sports meets entertainment.” While Buzz 16 has developed a Sky Max entertainment format that complements Gary Neville’s YouTube series The Overlap. And Amazon recently launched six-parter Married to the Game, from eOne.

Mertens predicts “the next wave of sports documentaries, blurring the line with entertainment, but also opening up for the more social relevance issues for a younger audience and younger athletes.”

Tom Robinson at Buzz 16 reflects: “Everyone’s aware of how difficult it is to get documentaries away at the moment…But if the message is right, the demand is still there.”

Pippa Considine

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