The underdog story, the comeback wins, the Cinderella moments, the historic rivalries, the regional loyalties. Sports aren’t just compelling in the midst of the game; it’s the adjacent drama that often draws people in the most.
The appetite for such narratives has overflowed in recent years, spilling into all areas of entertainment and giving audiences a steady diet of docuseries, TikTok videos, TV specials and more. Now we have a whole genre of entertainment about sports that dives into all of the juicy stories that keep us watching — including series like ESPN’s “The Last Dance” or Netflix’s “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.”
The draw is similar to that of reality television — addictive and endlessly bingeable, with a massive cast of characters to root for or hate.
“I’ve been forced to watch some football recently and I really think they should consider editing the matches to have confessionals from the players like in reality tv shows,” one popular post on X, formerly known as Twitter, reads. “Would be way more interesting.”
Studios, streamers and sports leagues have all been paying attention to this growing genre. Not only does it transfix audiences, it’s also a powerful marketing tool — one that nets new fans and keeps people engaged even after the clock runs out.
Sports entertainment isn’t just live sports anymore
Part of this growing sports-adjacent trend comes from the Covid-19 pandemic, which put live sports on hiatus. In its place, we got sports docuseries, shows like ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan and a legendary Chicago Bulls season. These shows were inescapable; “The Last Dance,” for example, became ESPN’s most watched documentary ever.
But this genre didn’t start with Covid-19. Its roots can be traced back to the NFL Film-produced show “Hard Knocks,” which premiered in 2001 on HBO. (HBO and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
“Hard Knocks” is a docuseries that focuses on a single NFL team as it prepares for the upcoming NFL season. The show feels like reality television. It has its characters: a promising, young rookie, a star quarterback, a struggling lineman, etc. As viewers, we get to know all of them, and we get attached, too.
NFL Films was created in the 1960s, by the NFL, to produce content for the days when the league wasn’t airing a live game, said Travis Vogan, a professor at the University of Iowa who studies sports media. This content could be anything from weekly highlight reels to, later, longer form documentaries and profiles. Vogan says the project helped boost the NFL’s popularity and retain fans outside of live events.
“(NFL Films) humanized the game, and also publicized it throughout the week,” Vogan said.
“Hard Knocks” came later, essentially cementing the show and NFL films as an in-house public relations team. The strategy helped the league draw viewers in and subsequently turned them into fans.
The main purpose of “Hard Knocks,” Vogan says, isn’t to tell heartwarming stories about a team. It’s to “glorify pro football.” Other sports entertainment is built around the same objective.
“They’re trying to sell us stuff,” he said. “That’s the point. They’re promoting these organizations through human drama.”
Leagues use entertainment and stories to create more fans, and thus make more money
Formula 1, an international single-seater racing competition, is one of the sports using a similar strategy to grow its audience.
The Netflix docuseries, “Drive to Survive,” follows the F1 season with an eye for theatrics. F1 is already a dangerous and exciting sport on its own, but “Drive to Survive” transforms it into a soap opera. What happens off the track is just as important as the races. Years-long feuds between teams are front and center, while interpersonal tensions between drivers and managers are exposed. It’s dramatic. And that’s intentional.
F1 is hugely popular in Europe, and in countries like China and Brazil, where its drivers are superstars. Lewis Hamilton, for example, has more than double Tom Brady’s Instagram followers; Sergio Perez’s face is plastered everywhere in his native Mexico.
But in the US, the sport has struggled. While F1 has attempted to break into the US market, it has largely been unsuccessful, said James Gay-Rees, co-founder and executive producer at Box To Box Films, which produces “Drive to Survive.”
Until “Drive to Survive.” The show became a Netflix hit, with its fifth season airing earlier this year. And F1 has reaped the benefits.
In 2018, only about 263,000 people attended the US Grand Prix, held every year in Austin, Texas. In 2022, that number jumped to an unprecedented 440,000. The reason? “Drive to Survive,” many have said.
Following the success of “Drive to Survive,” other docuseries like “Break Point,” about the international tennis tours, “Full Swing,” about the PGA Tour, and “Tour de France: Unchained,” about cycling have all found homes on Netflix. All are produced by Box to Box Films.
“It’s definitely a means to an end,” Gay-Rees said. “There was room to expand these brands in the states and shine a light on some of the stories that maybe American audiences weren’t that familiar with.”
The strategy is like an escalator, explained Cody Havard, a professor of sport commerce at the University of Memphis. Once you get people on the first step — watching an entertaining show about the sport — you can slowly but surely move them up. By the end, hopefully, they’re consuming the product; in this case, actually watching the live sport.
Outside of F1, other sports that previously saw popularity in the US — golf, tennis, and cycling — are in a “downswing,” Vogan noted. They aren’t dominated by the big-name stars of yore, like Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters or Lance Armstrong.
While committed fans will likely watch the sport no matter what, casual fans need someone to draw them in, to peak their interest, Vogan said. It could be a controversial player, he said, or maybe someone they’ve been getting to know through social media or television.
By giving younger, current stars new platforms — like a popular streaming docuseries — leagues can generate audience interest in these players. Those audiences will then, hopefully, watch them compete.
Still, production companies and studios are partnering with sports leagues in telling these narratives. That means that the stories they tell could be a little slanted, Vogan said.
“They’re going to represent (a sport) in a very specific way,” he said. “They might show some skirmishes, but they’re not going to probe anything. It’s not investigative journalism by any stretch.”
Even outside of media, drama sells
However, hit shows like “Drive to Survive” or “Break Point” aren’t meant to be investigative journalism. Instead, they tell stories about their featured sport, publicizing the leagues and teams in the process.
Take the meteoric rise of NFL player Travis Kelce. Kelce is considered one of the best tight ends of all time and has notched two Super Bowl wins with the Kansas City Chiefs. But his strength on the field isn’t why Travis Kelce is a household name. It’s his story.
In last season’s Super Bowl, Travis Kelce went head-to-head against brother Jason Kelce, when the Chiefs faced the Philadelphia Eagles. Dubbed the “Kelce Bowl,” fans ate the brotherly rivalry up. The two even appeared on “Saturday Night Live” together, with Travis hosting. Then, this year, Kelce started dating pop music star Taylor Swift, launching him from NFL-player-famous to A-list famous.
Football may have made Travis Kelce well-known in the world of sports. But the Kelce Bowl and Swifties made him a superstar. (Google search data supports this, showing significant bumps first after the Super Bowl, and later following rumors about Swift.)
The NFL, though, is the one cashing in. After Swift appeared at a Chiefs game, the NFL saw a nearly 400% spike in the sale of Kelce jerseys. Chiefs ticket prices have also gone up, as Swifties descend on the games in hopes of catching a glimpse of their idol. And a recent showdown against the New York Jets became the most watched Sunday game since the Super Bowl, all thanks to Swift’s presence.
Through it all, the makers of sports entertainment are watching with a keen eye.
“All of these examples, and the success of these shows, are hinting to content producers, ‘Hey, let’s do more things like this. Let’s take this as far as we can,’” Havard said. “And leagues and teams, they’re signing up for it.”
The power of a good story, and the characters and drama within, also follows — and is sometimes responsible for — the ebbs and flows of a sport’s popularity.
Vogan names boxing as an example. Though once the most popular sport in the US, boxing is now “fringe at best,” he said. There’s no Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson dominating, and Vogan can’t name the top five heavyweight boxers at the moment.
The most popular fighter right now? Jake Paul, he said, a YouTuber and social media influencer with no previous boxing training, who has now become one of the highest earners in the sport.
The formula works both ways. One study found that the golf stars featured in Netflix’s “Full Swing” experienced a social media boost following the premiere of the show, including already big names like Rory McIlroy.
Now, sports isn’t just a competition. It’s an ecosystem
If more drama means more money, it makes sense to emphasize stories in order to sell sports. That’s exactly what actors Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds are doing with “Welcome to Wrexham,” a reality show wherein the two buy Wrexham AFC, a small Welsh soccer team in a lower-tiered division, and attempt to make the club more successful, eventually leveling up to higher divisions.
It’s a real-life underdog story, tailor-made for an American audience. And it worked — this summer, the team played four matches in the United States as a build-up to the start of the season, an almost unheard of journey for a non-top tier team. Because of the show, audiences fell for the team — and because they fell for the team, they bought tickets.
“In the US, people probably had never heard of this team,” Havard said. “It actually makes me wonder how many other people will try to do this.”
The once clear delineations between sport and story, and even between reality and fiction, are rapidly becoming muddled. There could be more merging between scripted and reality shows, Havard said, something like HBO’s “Winning Time,” which tells the story of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rise through a fictionalized lens.
Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” already toes that line between reality and fiction.
AFC Richmond is not a real team, but in the show, they play well-known squads like Manchester City and West Ham United. And following the success of the first two seasons, the English Premier League secured a licensing deal with the show worth about half a million dollars, in which the show could use its branding, logos and archival footage. Though it’s hard to say whether “Ted Lasso” drove American interest in the EPL, or soccer in general, the move by the EPL speaks for itself. (And the show quite literally began as a commercial for the league.)
“If you asked (people) to name five EPL teams, I wonder how many people would name AFC Richmond,” Havard said. “And that’s a fictional team.”
But can people tell the difference? Hannah Waddingham, who plays the owner of AFC Richmond in “Ted Lasso,” is now featured in an ad for the NFL on Fox. And though her character from the show is not specifically mentioned, it may be alluded to — she’s buttoned up in business professional, posture erect, sipping a warm beverage, presumably tea. Coincidence?
Fiction, then, is seeping into reality — and reality is seeping into fiction. Sports stars like former NFL player Marshawn Lynch show up in prestige television; meanwhile fictional team owners preach the glories of professional football.
Sports have gone beyond the game itself. Now, it’s an ecosystem of sales pitches: Our favorite binges advertise live sports, live sports produce our favorite athletes, our favorite athletes then show up in our favorite binges. And so it goes.
If stories sell, then there’s money to be made.
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