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Are Sports Reality Shows Dying? Not If You Lean In and Push Content Out… Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Last week at the Stanford Sports Business Conference several senior media executives talked about the explosive initiatives tied to sports documentaries and series tied to teams and leagues and athletes. At one point it was mentioned that Netflix had at least 15 in various stages from various sports around the world, while leadership from the NWSL and the WNBA talked about the steady beat of inbound requests to chronicle athletes, teams, coaches and the like, all with the same idea. “We will be to your sport/athlete/team what ‘Drive to Survive’ was to Formula 1’s explosive growth in the U.S.

Ride the wave, sell the stories and fill the fans with content.

I thought about that when reading Rory Smith column this past week in the New York Times about the depth in pitches and stores, but lack of depth in storytelling, that documentaries around soccer are going through. The piece points out that “Wrexham” was a success because of characters off the field and the rise of the team which no one predicted, and that one of the first EPL documentaries, “Being Liverpool” came and went before the current rise, but now may be back for another season.

The main crux of the well thought out piece was…have we hot a wall, is the access and the insight really full of access and insightfulness, maybe some of these compelling characters aren’t really that compelling, and frankly do we need so many of these shows. It is a very worthwhile read that you can find here.

A couple of thoughts on all of the added content and the seemingly endless thirst for inside reality shows, that well, may not be endless.

First and foremost, while “Drive to Survive” introduced and captured the stories of a sport with global success as it rose in the United States from the “permanent emergent” list, it was just the latest in what has been decades of work giving fans an inside look, much of which started with the great Ross Greenburg at HBO in both football and boxing. When “Hard Knocks” came about there were scores of lower-level shows capturing everything from college football to high school hoops, all with their own storylines. The genre faded for a bit in team sports, but both Showtime and HBO went to great lengths, along with the UFC, in bringing fans behind the scenes of fighters in the led up to their time in the ring and the Octagon. They were high production, high vale and amazing storytelling.

What sparked the latest round was the growth of streaming platforms, the advanced interest in driving content for global sport, and the realization that fans of any sport…the core fans…really loved to learn. This was true for large international platforms like Amazon and Netflix, but also for teams themselves who produced shows for their own websites or regional channels (one great example being ”One Jets Drive” which the New York Jets have done with great acclaim for their regional carrier, SNY in New York. The content spoke and was delivered to the core.

Now as we start to see the perception that these long form big budget shows may be running out of steam and interest, there is something else to consider that sometimes gets overlooked. These shows, when put together and pushed out correctly, are promotional and marketing vehicles that don’t necessarily need the massive audience to drive home the value…they need to sit and inform and enthrall the core fan who is buying tickets, merchandise and consuming everything they can because they cannot find it elsewhere. Be it a National Governing body, a Women’s college basketball team, a second-tier soccer club, or a Little League team, if the story is interesting and compelling and well told, it can find an audience.

There is another key aspect that also often gets overlooked…these shows, and their content sections need to be pushed out to audiences, not published with the hopes that an audience finds it. The best told stories reach an audience because those at the hands of the communication and the storytelling are leaning in and driving the segments out to hometowns, to interested parties, to colleges and clubs, so that there is little chance that the work is not recognized by those who care. It’s an aspect of pushing that frankly the largest platforms just can’t do well. They have limited staff, limited budgets and limited time to execute and then move on. It takes a concerted effort by the insiders to watch, think about where the content can live and who would care enough to engage, post,  and build even more content around with discussion groups, reddit chats, even podcasts (like we saw in and around “The Last Dance”) so that those who care are being reached. It can’t be assumed they know they watch, or they engage unless you serve it up.

Now I am usually a sucker for a good deep dive around sports or music. I find the storytelling around artists to be even more interesting than sports teams in most cases, but even I can’t follow each and every show that is now being served up. If I know someone, if I read something, if I hear about a show, I will give it a chance. But scrolling through Netflix and Amazon and YouTube and Hulu turned up show after show with no context and no compelling reason to give it a shot.

So, is the genre dying? I don’t think so. Adjusting to have quality over quantity? Maybe. But the reality of these reality shows is that it takes work to promote, to segment out, to expand the audience by leaning in. Sitting back and waiting for success is a lesson in failure, just as it is on the pitch or the field. 

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