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Volume 22 No. 27
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A dramatic shift for sports documentaries

In crowded market, can HBO rebound?

A year ago, Mike Tollin sat in the Manhattan office of his friend, HBO Sports President Ken Hershman, and pitched the idea for a documentary on NBA hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

An accomplished producer and director, Tollin has been part of hundreds of these types of meetings over his career. What made this meeting noteworthy, however, was that the pitch took place at HBO, a network known for sports documentary excellence that rarely looked out-of-house for ideas or production.

For 20-plus years, HBO was the media industry’s most prolific producer of high-quality sports documentaries. It employed the best filmmakers — award-winning talents like Ezra Edelman, Margaret Grossi and Joe Levine — and won the most awards.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will be the focus of an upcoming HBO documentary that will use Mike Tollin as the executive producer.
Photo by: Nikara Johns
But that standing, alone atop the sports documentary business, has changed.

TV networks aren’t getting rich with sports documentaries — even the genre’s staunchest advocates say they do more for a channel’s brand than for the bottom line — but networks are spending more money and time to put them on their schedule.

ESPN, long irked at having ceded the space to HBO, has quickly become the go-to destination for filmmakers since it launched its “30 for 30” series in 2009. Sports documentaries are a big part of the schedules for premium channels Showtime and Epix. Basic cable sports channels, league-owned networks and regional sports networks all are dabbling in sports documentaries more frequently.

HBO is no longer the network of choice that viewers turn to first to watch high-quality documentaries.

“HBO was essentially the only place to work on sports documentaries,” said Aaron Cohen, a writer and producer who’s worked on Emmy-award winning documentaries at several networks, including HBO, ESPN and NBC.

“Then ‘30 for 30’ came, and these other sports networks popped up. Sports TV is flying high right now. To me, the documentaries are catching part of that. The networks need programming.”

Still, the image of Tollin doing a documentary for HBO was surprising to many in the business. Here was a consulting producer on the original 30 documentaries for ESPN’s series pitching a subject that was the type of documentary on which HBO built its reputation under former President Ross Greenburg.

The quality of work from HBO Sports’ division is undeniable. From 2007 to 2012, HBO Sports produced films that won the Outstanding Documentary Sports Emmy award five times with classics such as “Lombardi,” “The Ghosts of Flatbush,” and “Assault in the Ring.” The films were critically acclaimed and were viewer favorites, filled with classic production and the steady, trademark narration of Liev Schreiber.

When Greenburg resigned from HBO in 2011, his staff of in-house documentarians eventually followed him out the door.

Since then, the way HBO has approached documentaries has changed. It is still committed to the genre, said Hershman, who pledged to keep the channel’s sports documentary business up and running. But HBO Sports is more likely to use outside talent. The Abdul-Jabbar documentary was the first sign of this change.

“It was a personal choice to open ourselves up to the community of filmmakers and ideas that are out there,” Hershman said. “It doesn’t make sense to foreclose yourself off from the community out there of amazing filmmakers.”

The Tollin meeting was not the first time Hershman opened HBO’s schedule to outside sports producers. He’s worked with Pete Berg on the “State of Play,” a contemporary documentary series that highlights a specific sports topic. It debuted to good reviews in December with an episode called “Trophy Kids.” More episodes are planned for this fall.

Hershman acknowledges a change in the marketplace, citing the explosion in sports channels as creating a growing demand for sports documentaries. He said he is taking more meetings from outside producers, but is still relying on internal ideas like last year’s “Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward,” which was produced internally by HBO’s sports boxing group.

“For us, sports documentaries still remain an important component of what we do,” Hershman said. “We are held to a high standard, and we strive in everything we do to fulfill that promise. Given our legacy in sports documentaries, it’s something that needs to be cherished and protected and guarded carefully.”

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Under Greenburg, HBO generally produced three or four sports documentaries per year, and they all had a similar look and feel. The documentaries focused on older subjects ­— 2010’s “Magic & Bird” was among the most contemporary topics for a portfolio that included award-winning documentaries on the Brooklyn Dodgers and Vince Lombardi.

HBO documentaries relied on heavy use of archival footage, understated musical scores and Schreiber’s distinctive narration.

In working with outside producers, Hershman has changed that approach, as well. For the Gatti-Ward documentary, the channel hired Mark Wahlberg as the narrator, giving the production a completely different sound than previous HBO documentaries. Similarly, Tollin said his Abdul-Jabbar documentary, scheduled for release early next year, would not follow a specific mold.

For some producers, the change to using outside talent and giving producers and directors more latitude in how they create their films puts HBO’s sports documentaries closer in line to ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.

ESPN’s rapid rise in the space was by design. Company executives were irked by HBO’s dominance as far back as

This week ESPN will debut “Slaying the Badger,” which examines the rivalry between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the Tour de France.
Photo by: ESPN Films
1999, when the network launched its “SportsCentury” series under former programming head Mark Shapiro, according to several executives who worked at ESPN at the time.

Soon after taking over all areas of content decisions in 2005, John Skipper made it a point to bring the cachet of high-quality documentaries to ESPN.

“It was when Skipper took over that ESPN really made the commitment to documentaries,” said NFL executive Ron Semiao, who worked at ESPN for nearly 30 years before leaving in 2012. “He didn’t want HBO by default to be the leader in this space. He thought ESPN should be a leader in the sports documentary category. He was the one who gave the authorization to invest in that genre. It’s paid off handsomely.”

Under the direction of Bill Simmons and Connor Schell, ESPN came up with the idea for “30 for 30,” a series of 30 documentaries to celebrate ESPN’s 30 years of existence.

Rather than rely on in-house documentarians, like HBO Sports, Schell and Simmons reached out to Hollywood producers. The result was a series of high-quality, unique stories that weren’t being told, like Barry Levinson’s “The Band that Wouldn’t Die” about the Baltimore Colts marching band or Ice Cube’s “Straight Outta L.A.” about the Raiders’ minority fans. The series immediately became a pop culture hit.

“Sports fans exist in all different corners of the creative community, whether that’s feature filmmakers, documentarians, authors, actors, writers,” said Schell, a vice president and executive producer for ESPN. “One of the things that ‘30 for 30’ was able to do was open up the tent and go out to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a sports documentarian, but may consider themselves more generally a storyteller, and give them a forum to tell that story.”

The effort was so successful that a series that originally was supposed to produce 30 documentaries now has more than 60 in its library. Plus, ESPN has expanded the brand into other areas, like digital shorts and a “Nine for IX” series on female-focused documentaries that celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. “30 for 30” proved to be so popular that it’s become ESPN’s documentary brand, and it is a commercial, critical and ratings success.

Greenburg, who has since started his own production company and works with several networks, looks at it wistfully.

“The ESPN ‘30 for 30’ brand has become omnipresent as it pertains to sports documentaries,” Greenburg said. “They’ve built a brand. We had that brand at HBO. But it’s slipped away and ‘30 for 30’ has taken hold of it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many in the business.

“Once ESPN entered the marketplace in as emphatic a manner as it did, and it was proven to be accepted, other partners started to see the reaction to the marketplace,” said Ron Wechsler, NBC vice president of original programming and production, who worked at ESPN for eight years through 2011 and was part of the group that helped launch “30 for 30.”

For his part, Hershman acknowledged growing competition in the sports documentary space from more outlets than just ESPN. That’s a reason why he said HBO needs to focus on high-quality documentaries that fit within its brand.

“It’s really healthy. It’s not so much about what other people are doing that drives us, as much as staying true to our mission — create the best storytelling possible,” Hershman said.

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It’s clear that the market for documentaries is stronger than ever. CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network are each looking to sports documentaries to support their live rights deals. The reasons are simple: documentaries keep viewers engaged once live events end. NBC Sports, for example, schedules hockey documentaries after an NHL game, Formula One documentaries after an F1 race and horse racing documentaries after a Triple Crown race.

“All of those things really help round out our schedule,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN. “It’s about being sticky, too. You want people to come and continue to engage with NBC Sports Network or NBC after the event is over with.”

Golf Channel set up Golf Channel Films to produce documentaries for Golf Channel and NBC. So far, it has come out with two, “Arnie” and “Payne” on Arnold Palmer and Payne Stewart, and plans to produce several each year.

Other premium channels increasingly are looking at sports documentaries as popular evergreen programming that can be scheduled years after they’re first made.

Showtime, which is working on a feature-length documentary called “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” that will run this fall, plans to make about two or three sports documentaries per year under its Showtime Sports division that’s run by Stephen Espinoza.

“There’s a lot of sports coverage in general. But there’s not that much room for depth. What we have to bring is depth and unique access,” said Showtime Networks President David Nevins. “The fact that HBO is doing less is good for us.”

At Epix, CEO Mark Greenberg has identified sports documentaries as a main building block of programming for the network. It has found success with its “In the Moment” documentary series, with features on Lindsey Vonn and Amar’e Stoudemire. It is planning a new one with Dwight Howard.

Epix said its decision wasn’t the result of the current competitive landscape, but just more for storytelling.

“We didn’t do a competitive analysis because HBO may be pulling back on sports docs,” he said. “Good TV is good TV. The more that is there, there’s plenty for people to watch. We’re finding that this content really has legs, unlike live content that’s one and done.”

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At HBO, Hershman dismisses talk of the demise of the network’s standing. He maps out plans for the Abdul-Jabbar documentary and the “State of Play” and “Sport in America” series this year. He brings up the “Hard Knocks” and “24/7” series that have been staples on HBO’s schedule for years.

And he plans to take more meetings with producers, like the one he took in June 2013 with Tollin in Manhattan. During that meeting, Tollin could sense that Hershman was interested in the Abdul-Jabbar documentary. He sensed that Hershman still needed to be convinced that the NBA hall of famer was enthusiastic about making the film.

“I invited him to come to Los Angeles to meet with us together,” Tollin said.

That meeting occurred about a month later. The trio met at HBO’s Los Angeles office where Hershman could see firsthand Abdul-Jabbar’s eagerness to make the film.

“Mike Tollin was able to deliver Kareem and get him comfortable,” Hershman said. “We didn’t have the relationship there to accomplish that. Combine that with Mike’s filmmaking skills, and it’s an exciting project for us.”

For filmmakers, the opportunities make for a vibrant market, with more outlets to pitch ideas and showcase their work.

“I don’t know if it’s about defining the HBO Sports doc versus the ESPN sports doc versus the Showtime sports doc versus the Netflix sports doc. But they’re all buying them,” Tollin said. “They have big appetites for them. That’s what’s exciting. It’s about finding a great story and telling it as the story dictates.”