Netflix Golf, Tennis Series Push Game-Time, All-Access Barrier

Netflix recently announced Box to Box movies, the production company behind the hit docuseries Formula 1: Drive to survive, will produce two more documentary series for the streaming service, focusing on the PGA Tour and Grand Slam events of professional tennis. Brandon Riegg (VP, Nonfiction Series & Comedy Specials, Netflix) told Bloomberg the PGA, ATP and WTA “have taken note of the ‘Drive to Survive’ effect” (see: TV ratings for US F1 races are +40% since the docuseries debut in 2018) and hope to replicate in their respective sports. Former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said there is plenty of evidence to support the idea. When executed properly, he said, “this form of programming has reached a younger demo, so it’s new fans.” But he warns that a docuseries isn’t enough to turn a viewer into a lifelong fan. It “can attract” [viewers] for a closer look,” Greenburg said. “[Those individuals won’t] however, become permanent fans unless the sport sticks to the deal at the end of the deal. He mentioned boxing as a cautionary tale: HBO’s 24/7 series, and similar shows, have been able to drive meaningful pay-per-view sales for some individual fights, but fan base has declined over the past 15 years.

JWS’ Take: Greenburg (President, Ross Greenburg Productions) knows a thing or two about the all-access sports documentary genre; he created it in 2001 with the launch of hard blows. Since then, he has had a hand in producing a long line of behind-the-scenes sports documentaries, including: 24/7, Road to the Winter Classic, A season with and Quest for the Stanley Cup.

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But he’s not the only former TV executive to see the benefits of innovative, all-access approaches to non-live sports programming. Ron Wechsler, a longtime ESPN and NBC Sports programmer, pointed out that “24/7 was clearly a huge boon to HBO and its [boxing] PPVs. A lot of people argue The ultimate fighter saved the UFC and really kicked off growth. hard blows helped the NFL and its continued growth. So, [F1 and] Ride to survive is only a late, prominent example.”

But Wechsler remains “a little bearish about whether they can capture that same cultural zeitgeist a little bit” with the upcoming docuseries. “Some of the timing elements [Drive to Survive benefited from] are not there, and some of the naturally compelling background elements”, such as the pageantry that surrounds every F1 race, are not there either. “There are a lot of factors that make [Drive to Survive’s success] hard to replicate,” he said.

It is also a challenge to fully procure the leagues, governing bodies and individual athletes. Greenburg said every league and governing body “talks a good game. But once you get to the ground and start firing, do the doors stay open or do they close?” he asked, seemingly informed by his own experience.If Box to Box is unable to actually pull back the curtain, the show will suffer.

Wechsler still believes it is “definitely the right move”. Both sports, he said, “need to innovate and have more access and superior storytelling is what fans want.”

History has shown that a well-executed, accessible docuseries has the potential to become a cultural phenomenon and give the accompanying competition a “foot in the door” with new fans, Greenburg said. “When We Launched” 24/7 with Mayweather and De La Hoya, it propelled the pay-per-view numbers up from where we’d been on a consistent basis for the past 15 years. We thought [the fight] would make 1.2 million purchases, [it] ended up doing 2.5 million, and most people credited 24/7 because what it did was arouse great interest, especially among young demos who had never been exposed to the sport before.”

As noted, the boxing crowd has dwindled in recent years and Greenburg says a sport needs to be able to stand on its own merits in order to retain new fans. With so much competition for fan time and attention, that can mean taking risks with game presentation. “The leagues and all these sanctions organizations need to look at their sport and break down the walls,” he said. “They have to [be willing to] give the fan access to the locker room and various aspects of the game, audio-wise and video-wise, which they haven’t given until now. Coaches, owners and general managers must adapt to the fact that fans want the inside story. This isn’t about sending a sideline reporter to give an injury update. This is about really taking a behind-the-scenes look at the action. The next generation of producers in sports television, they are going to try to break through the ultimate barrier, which is game-time, all-access, to generate future growth for sports competitions.

It makes sense to wonder if the pool of potential new fans is big enough to support any sport that makes an attempt at all-access, non-live content (note: Box to Box is also doing a World Surf League docuseries ). Greenburg thinks so. “Sport has shown for many years that there is always [room to grow the audience],” he said.

Though few dispute Ride to survive was a positive development for the sport, not everyone is convinced that the TV show is responsible for the growth in the American market. Wechsler said that the increasing desire of American fans to see the best athletes in the world (as opposed to just domestically), the rise of streaming technology (which makes it easier for American fans to watch races while they are broadcast live) and a two-hour broadcast period that did not come into contact with major sporting competitions made F1 a sport ready to grow in the US anyway. F1’s ownership change in 2017 (Liberty Media bought it from Bernie Ecclestone) and ESPN’s acquisition of the domestic broadcasting rights were also undoubtedly factors in the sport’s rise. For what it’s worth, Netflix has never claimed that the show affected F1’s live ratings. Netflix declined to comment on the impact of the docuseries, other than what it said in the press releases surrounding the two announcements.

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