News & Thinking

Why sports documentaries continue to score

  • News
Coloured smoke plumes from a sports game News 18 Mar

The appetite for deep dives into the world of sport has seen a major spike in recent years and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Amazon Prime Video has securely positioned itself as a leader in this space with titles such as Rooney, which profiles the global icon, and the All or Nothing series which has formed into an entire franchise with global success.

However, Netflix hits like The Last Dance also enthralled audiences during the height of COVID-19 when the world was starved of live sport.

The genre is evolving in a number of interesting ways, such as tapping into audiences’ appetite for episodic content, as well as feature length documentaries. The episodic format offers viewers a wider context than they can get from live matches and social media. They can delve into the drama, behind the scenes process, the inner feelings of sports icons, and spotlight grassroots sports that often miss out on mainstream coverage.

The focus on social and cultural icons

Today’s climate of activism sees many sports personalities embodying a new, inclusive age of sports and transcending their sports to become social and cultural icons. Social injustice has always been rife within sports and audiences’ contempt for discrimination  has fuelled an appetite for seeing individuals succeed when the odds are stacked against them.

The often-used format of full access to icons and their teams, one-on-ones and guest interviews from fellow stars and people closest to them deeply embroils audiences in the emotions felt behind the news headlines. Apple’s recent announcement of a new documentary about the groundbreaking life and career of Formula 1 World Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton will spotlight his working-class background and his status as the only Black driver in the Formula 1 series.

The profiles of female sports icons continue to rise, paving the way for new generations to tackle the industry’s issues with discrimination and abuse. Netflix’s Naomi Osaka docuseries follows Naomi Osaka as she explores her cultural roots and navigates her multifaceted identity as a tennis champ and rising leader. A key development is the focus on women in very male-dominated sports, such as boxing. The recent Prime Video documentary Lioness: The Nicola Adams Story profiled Nicola Adams, the undefeated WBO champion, double Olympic gold medalist and recipient of an OBE. The series details her experience of sexism, racism and homophobia over the course of her career. Documentary makers have the time to build up trust with the people they’re filming, and then the time to tell those peoples’ stories in a nuanced and authentic way.

Amplifying grassroots and untapped sports

Documentaries are an entry point for audiences to understand the challenges of sports beyond the elite level. This sub-genre is big business, highlighted by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s acquisition of Wrexham AFC with a Hollywood production team in tow. Former England star turned media personality Peter Crouch has also ventured into the space with his Discovery+ show Save Our Beautiful Game, in which he follows  Dulwich Hamlet F.C. and their financial struggles, highlighting the plight of grassroots football clubs across the country.

Netflix’s Cheer might have seemed like an odd show to gain the mass audience it did. The sport of competitive cheerleading is small, but it is the show’s close shots of near-impossible stunts, and the mesmerising work of practice which enraptured viewers and formed a cult following. Though it holds a huge existing fanbase, Netflix’s upcoming PGA TOUR and Golf’s Major Championships series may follow the same success, and bring in new audiences who previously held little interest. This formula can be witnessed through the success of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which created die-hard fans simply through the series, and has just released a fourth series to greater anticipation than any that have gone before.

Behind-the-scenes drama

Sports audiences’ tastes are changing, opening the door to a widening opportunity for content that helps fans to feel closer to the action. Sports lends itself to great storytelling in a unique way, through the nail-biting close calls, internal politics, and high stakes results. Sports are an area where we can witness people achieve – and lose – incredible things. It’s awe-inspiring and gripping.

Such behind-the-scenes immersion can be witnessed through Prime Videos’ Take Us Home. Documenting Leeds United football club as they attempt to turn the fortunes of the club around, the human stories were a focal point throughout. Allowing audiences to gain insight into transfer deals, pressures on the players and the important role the club plays in the lives of fans created a drama-filled series. Prime Video’s upcoming addition to the All or Nothing series will follow Arsenal go through a rebuilding phase as they focus on Premier League success and look to get back into European football this season.

Analysis of online conversations through our social media tool, Meltwater, demonstrates that anticipation for the release is high: 70,283 Twitter mentions.

— since the announcement on July 9th 2021

The booming genre of sports documentaries look set to continue for some time to come. There is still white space for further untapped sports, in-depth immersions into the lives of cultural icons and fresh behind-the-scenes content, and we think we’ll continue to see them rise in prominence.

Here are a few more recent and upcoming sports documentaries that we’re excited to check out:

Duel: Hamilton v Verstappen – a two-part documentary charting the season-long battle between Formula 1 drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, for the 2021 F1 drivers’ championship.

Brazil 2002: The Real Story – a feature length documentary which tells the story of the Brazil team who were victorious at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Audible – a documentary short which tells the story about the Maryland School for the Deaf and their championship football team.

Netflix Tour de France – upcoming documentary going behind-the-scenes of this year’s 109th edition of the Tour de France.

The Story of the First World Cup – an upcoming feature documentary film about the first football world cup that took place in Uruguay in 1930.

MTM team
18th March 2022