ESPN’s “30 for 30″ to return with new batch of original documentaries

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In news that has been met with near unanimous approval, ESPN has decided to expand their popular “30 for 30″ documentary series with another set of 30 films to roll out between now and 2014.  The news was first was reported by Rich Sandomir of the New York Times, later explained by executive producer Bill Simmons, and presented by ESPN at their Upfront presentations yesterday in New York. 

“30 for 30″ has been an unabashed success for the network, making some of the finest sports documentaries ever seen.  The original documentaries are about as far away form the contrived carnival barking too often seen on the network on a daiily basis.  Yes, not all of the original 30 documentaries were a hit, and it will be impossible for Part II to bat 1.000 either.  But, fans can certainly come to expect more great television over the next two years, along with several other goodies to enhance the “30 for 30″ experience.  Here are the major takeaways after digging through the details on the second installment of “30 for 30″…

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-The initial lineup of docs being touted for “30 for 30″ looks just as strong as its predecessor.  The full list can be found here, but a highlight looks to be “Bo Knows” – the story of the legend of Bo Jackson.  Another winner will certainly be “The Season of Their Lives” focusing on the 1983 N.C. State basketball team.  Not only was their championship one of the most unlikely in history, but the fate of those connected to the team like Jim Valvano and Lorenzo Charles has been tragic in the years since their triumph.  “Benji,” the story of a Chicago prep phenom in the mid-80s gunned who was gunned down in high school, also seems like exactly the type of story that “30 for 30″ thrives on bringing to the masses.  

This preliminary list doesn’t include the award-winning documentary “Senna”, which we first revealed would air under the ESPN Films banner later this year.  It’s unclear whether “Senna” will be a part of the new 30 for 30 or will appear separately under the ESPN Films banner when it airs in late July.

 

-Strong cross-promotion with Grantland looks to be a theme to the new set of “30 for 30″ docs.  Of course, this makes sense when you consider King of Grantland Bill Simmons is an executive producer on the “30 for 30″ project.  On the plus side, the opportunity to give added context to feature films through oral histories and longer articles will prove valuable.  For many subjects, even a span of two hours isn’t enough time to truly dig deep enough to understand the nuances of many of the most overlooked, or even most famous stories in sports.

-Also, the digital shorts promised by Grantland do promise to be a fantastic addition to the series if the initial film released today is any indication.  The first short by Eric Drath called “Here Now” focuses on Pete Rose’s sad existence as an autograph signer in Las Vegas.  The film clocks in at under 8 minutes, but is a perfect length to show what Pete Rose has become since his exile from baseball and confession that he lied about his gambling.  At times Pete appears part delusional, part desperate, part confident, but mostly just sad.  The digital short platform is perfect for stories that don’t need an hour to tell. 

-One nugget that Bill Simmons let slip is that the second installment won’t be limited to the first 30 years of ESPN’s existence.  Limiting the first “30 for 30″ to only events that occurred between 1979 and 2009 certainly didn’t hurt the appeal of the franchise.  But, it will be interesting to see what stories from the past can be examined in a new light, or perhaps unearthed for the first time.  If there were an infinite number of stories that deserved to be told from those 30 years (you can see some of our ideas here), imagine the plethora of compelling films that have yet to be made.  And although enough time and perspective hasn’t passed, there are some compelling topics that could be mined from just the last few years as well… although hopefully not including the words steroids, Bountygate, Tebow, or Linsanity.

-Unfortunately, the rollout continues the brand confusion m’colleague Ben Koo has talked about at length in the past.  In the interim between “30 for 30″ installments, ESPN has released high-profile documentaries about Steve Bartman and Magic Johnson under the generic ESPN Films banner.  From everything ESPN has released today, it seems the next 30 documentaries will be under the “30 for 30″ banner once again, even though they have nothing to do anymore with the 30th anniversary for ESPN.  Overall, it’s a minor complaint, but ESPN would be wise to make a firm decision one way or another.  Either commit to ESPN Films as the branding for these superb documentaries, or go with the more recognizable “30 for 30 Presents.”  One brand would definitely help, because it looks like these excellent documentaries are going to be around for a long time to come.

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