Shooting for sports-adjacent programming that’s a win-win

Shooting for sports-adjacent programming that’s a win-win

Bambos Eracleous, Partner for Sports, Media & Gaming, on the rise of sports documentaries packed with enough drama to satisfy media companies, viewers and those behind the sporting icons at the centre of the action.

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan possessed an amazing repertoire of slick on-court moves, among them a defence-confounding pivot. For another pivotal thing connected with Jordan, look no further than ‘The Last Dance’, the 2020 Netflix docuseries chronicling his career, with particular emphasis on his final season with the illustrious Chicago Bulls.

‘The Last Dance’ combined archive footage with an abundance of candid interviews to build a definitive picture of one of the all-time great sports teams, and the series went down a storm with critics and the public alike – the average audience score on review website Rotten Tomatoes is a highly impressive 95%. Its remarkable success fired the starting pistol for a new wave of documentaries that sought to capture sporting drama, both on and off the field of play, often bound up with larger-than-life characters, money, marketing, pressure to perform and politics. A beguiling mix.

Those that know me will be aware that I have long talked about the blurring of lines between the areas of the Sport, Gaming and Media. My beat, as it were. A beat that continues to become ever more intertwined. Disney’s recent announcement of a tie-up with Epic Games, publisher of Fortnite, is yet another example of this direction of travel, but I’ll leave that particular conversation for another day, apart from adding that as the owner of characters like Darth Vader, who is to say our small planet will be able to resist Disney’s conquest of a “games and entertainment universe”.

But back to the main focus of this piece, sports documentaries. Or to use the telling media jargon for such properties, sports-adjacent content. While the terminology sounds quite cold, it actually does a good job of summing up this exciting genre. Sport sits at the heart of it, but what’s adjacent to that is equally important: behind the scenes insight, complex inter-relationships, passion and obsessive commitment, the pursuit of marginal gains, bitter rivalries and the consequences of success or failure. It’s a long and fascinating list.

Hence the fascination with well-made programming of this type. And if you are in any doubt that people care about such adjacent things, consider the stupendous level of public interest in the relationship between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce in the context of the Super Bowl.

In January, Netflix struck a deal with wrestling body WWE to show its flagship weekly ‘Raw’ programme, which blends live wrestling action with characters and storytelling. The deal is said to be worth a massive $5 billion – $500 million a year over 10 years, beginning in 2025 – and sees the streaming giant wrestle the format away from linear television. ‘Raw’ is currently being shown by NBCUniversal.

Although ‘Raw’ does feature live wrestling coverage, Netflix co-Chief Executive Officer Ted Sarandos was recently at pains to point out that the deal does not signal a change in strategy regarding sporting events. This is all about “sports entertainment” and Netflix has built a great track record in this respect with series such as ‘Drive to Survive’ (Formula 1) and ‘Tour de France: Unchained’ (cycling).

Of course, Netflix is not the only player in town. Later this year, perhaps timed to coincide with the Wimbledon tennis tournament, Amazon is set to show a documentary on 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer made by award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia, the man behind the acclaimed ‘Senna’ documentary on F1 superstar Ayrton Senna. The Federer documentary was filmed over 12 days at the 2022 Laver Cup, where the Swiss tennis maestro decided to hang up his racquet for good, and Federer provided the filmmakers with unprecedented access to his hotel room and even his home. The programme also features the first interview given by his wife in more than a decade.

‘Welcome to Wrexham’ on Disney+ comes sprinkled with the added entertainment stardust of Hollywood owners, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, striving to transform the fortunes of Welsh football club Wrexham.

Despite their success in reaching League Two, Wrexham are minnows in comparison with the might of the Premier League’s leading teams. One hotly anticipated sports-adjacent project in the making is a behind the scenes documentary on Liverpool FC, spanning the 2023/24 season. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, who brought glory to Anfield with Champions League and EPL triumphs, recently announced that this would be his last season in charge of the Reds, adding a further frisson of excitement to the show. It remains to be seen whether he will go out on a high.  

Sports fans, including supporters of rival football teams, will be drawn to the show for an insight into Klopp’s tactical flair and man-management capabilities, not to mention a taste of   many other big personalities, players included, at the club. Added to which is the rollercoaster ride of goals for and against, and controversial decisions, that are part and parcel of every season in the top flight.

From Liverpool’s perspective, this is a window into the workings of the club, an opportunity to cement fan loyalty and perhaps attract new supporters. Alongside this comes scope to build and widen the Liverpool brand into an entertainment, as well as a sporting property.

Last year, I wrote a piece on whether sports teams should hire Creative Directors. Perhaps we will see more of this as a growing number of teams and governing bodies explore sports-adjacent routes.   

But interim executive talent could well be the resource required to turn sports-adjacent aspirations into reality. And this is where we at Odgers Interim are at the top of the game. Interim roles we have filled include the CEOs of Cricket Scotland and Table Tennis England; the HR Director for the FA; a Media, Programming & Operations Director and Marketing Director for Tottenham Hotspur. While for FIFA’s FIFA+ entertainment platform alone, we have filled six roles across a number of areas including technology, product and content.

We shoot, we score…and we’re always happy to listen to your goals.  


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