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Volume 21 No. 34
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For documentary makers, script has flipped

Much has been written about how TV viewers are in the middle of a golden age for sports documentaries, thanks to the proliferation of sports channels looking for high-quality content.

Surprisingly, though, it does not appear to be a golden age for sports documentary producers, according to two executives who have made their careers in the business. Despite all the TV and digital outlets that carry sports documentaries, Flagstaff Films co-founders George Roy and Steven Stern say it’s harder than ever for sports documentaries to see the light of day today.

“When there were four networks doing them, there were only about 10 people producing films,” Stern said. “Now that there are 20 networks doing it, there are a thousand people producing them. The odds have gotten much longer, and it’s become harder to actually get your stuff on the air.”

The duo has been attached to some of the most acclaimed sports documentaries of the past quarter-century, picking up seven Emmy and three Peabody awards for their efforts. Today, they have adapted to the new marketplace by producing smaller, behind-the-scenes series, like “Fighting for History,” a preview show for the coming Floyd Mayweather-Andre Berto fight, which will be carried on CBS Sports Network and Showtime.

But they made their name with long-form sports documentaries, producing 21 of them for HBO when Ross Greenburg was running the premium channel’s sports department. Then Greenburg left in 2011.

Flagstaff Films co-founders Steven Stern (left) and George Roy are navigating a new market.
Photo by: FLAGSTAFF FILMS
“We had a fairly significant, long-lasting pipeline into HBO that was not unlike a producer would have with a studio in Hollywood,” Roy said. “Whenever we finished one project, we just started another. When he left HBO, that pipeline ended.”

Now, Roy and Stern are navigating a market where the historical documentaries in which they made their names — like the ones on Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and the UCLA basketball teams from the early 1970s — do not draw the young audiences that TV networks crave. The most popular episodes in ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series, for example, deal with sports stories from the 1980s and ’90s. Roy and Stern say they have had talks with ESPN about doing a documentary project for the series but have not yet reached an agreement.

One of the biggest challenges, Roy and Stern say, has been trying to figure out the type of stories that merit attention. Some of sports’ biggest moments today don’t seem to have the same social significance that they used to. Big sporting moments today seem to be replaced in a few days or weeks by another big sporting moment, they say.

“Will there ever be anything in sports that seems as significant as the Bobby Thomson home run,” Roy asked, referring to his HBO documentary “Shot Heard ’Round the World” on Thomson’s pennant-winning home run in 1951. “It just seems like these moments come and go so quickly because they are replaced by something else that happens because we’re all so bombarded with information from everywhere.”

Stern agreed and pointed to the 2015 Triple Crown-winning horse American Pharoah as an example. He suggested that the horse would not have the same importance in U.S. sports history as Secretariat, which won the Triple Crown in 1973.

“It’s hard to pick contemporary topics,” Stern said. “To me, why does anyone want to see the Vince Young-Matt Leinert game from the 2006 Rose Bowl (which was the subject of “A Football Life” on NFL Network earlier this year). It just happened. I believe that stories need to breathe a little bit before you go back to tell them. They have to foment.”

As an example, Stern pointed to the SEC Network, which is carrying a documentary on Auburn’s improbable football wins against Georgia and Alabama from two years ago as part of its “SEC Storied” series.

“It’s nothing that we would do,” he said. “It’s nothing that we would think of. We do need, if we want to be in their game, to start thinking of things that are more contemporary. There’s no question about that.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.