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Top 5 Sports Documentaries – The Power of Sports Documentaries

Performance Communications Author Image Performance Communications | September 25, 2023

It seems that recently a new pro sports documentary appears on an almost daily basis, 24-7 viewing if you need to get away from the family over Christmas! While the docs undoubtedly provide the streaming channels with engaging content to draw subscriptions and drive revenue, should sporting associations or teams always give the green light to the cameras?

On the face of it, what is not to love? Each team or governing body is paid handsomely for the cameras, rumour is that Wrexham receive $400k per episode, and if there is drama on and off the field of play then the TV execs will be banging on the door for more, raising media and sponsorship rights values at the same time.

Rights holder strategy is clearly to engage and grow their audience, content is king! While the attention span of younger generations won’t necessarily watch a full season, race, match or even a documentary episode, social media sized chunks are still penetrating their consciousness and drawing them in.

Governing bodies and teams however need to be careful before they jump on the bandwagon or sign up for another season as there is undoubtably a saturation point. Original content isn’t easy to produce, the drama isn’t guaranteed year on year, and this could ultimately turn fans off. The latest Drive to Survive has generally been considered, in a Performance Comms straw poll at least, to be far less engaging than previous years.

While players can make a name for themselves, the cameras can be distracting and provide the opportunity for the stars to take their eye off the ball. 24-7 content could also set team/associations back, there is clearly an opportunity to highlight issues, tensions between players and managers that would ordinarily be out of the public eye.

And what about the knock-on effect of the cameras themselves, affecting the drama on the pitch, course, court or circuit? Something very underhand was afoot when Lewis was robbed of the 2021 World Championship, but it made the documentary!

Behind the scenes documentaries are ultimately here to stay. While there is evidently a risk to your team, competition or governing body, the reward should, if treated with care, outweigh the risk.

My Top Five Sports Documentaries

  1. An Impossible Job (1994)

When fly on the wall documentaries were short on the ground Channel 4 aired ‘An Impossible Job’, a fascinating insight into the England football team and their ill-fated 1994 World Cup qualification campaign.  Tortuous viewing for any England football fan, it helped pave the way for future football documentaries and left me feeling gutted for England manager Graham ‘I do not like that’ Taylor after results and a dodgy ref all went against him.

  1. Drive to Survive (2019)

The first few series of Drive to Survive had it all and helped generate a whole new audience to Formula One, including the coveted US market. The documentary brought drama of the action and went behind the scenes to bring to life the personalities that make F1 happen and importantly didn’t focus just on the drivers.

  1. Living with the Lions (1997)

A classic. Living with the Lions told the story of the 1997 British & Irish victorious tour to South Africa. The warts and all documentary had it all, taking you through the highs (Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal) and the lows (Doddy Weir’s injury) of the tour. You sense that the players forgot the cameras were there and you were on the tour with them every step of the way.

  1. Welcome to Wrexham (2022)

What more is there to say about Rob and Ryan’s exploits in North Wales? I find myself checking the Wrexham result on a Saturday afternoon as a matter of course, enough said!

  1. Premier Passions (1998)

As a Sunderland fan, behind the scenes documentaries, spoiler alert, don’t end well.  Even though we were relegated, I enjoyed the X rated rants of Peter Reid back in 1998’s ‘Premier Passions’ because it provided insights into the club and Premier League football that just weren’t available in the 90’s.

Sunderland Till I Die twenty years later was a whole different story. While highly insightful, not one but two relegations mean I would classify this as ‘Horror’, rather than sports documentary. On a positive note, it was the catalyst for Rob McElhenney to buy a football team!

And what if…

On a final note, if only there could have been cameras behind the scenes during the 1981 Ashes! The exploits of Botham, Willis, Brearley and Co would have been gripping viewing. Imagine seeing Beefy after his pair at Lord’s or following the Aussie coach driver to the local Headingly bookies to place the infamous 500/1 bet after the Aussies enforced the follow on!

James Sephton


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