Rewind back to 2009 and HBO had a monopoly on high quality sports documentary content. It wasn’t just the prevailing opinion at the time but also a motivating realization for 30 for 30 founder, Bill Simmons.
“I was watching an old HBO Sports documentary and got mad that HBO had this monopoly… I thought, we’re a sports network and they’re not, but it’s always, oh, they have a new documentary.”
Passionately — and hyperbolically — Simmons added, “I want nothing more than to destroy them.”
“It really bothered me that HBO had cornered the sports documentary in the minds of the average sports fan,” said Bill Simmons, ESPN’s Page 2 columnist and executive producer for the “30 for 30” project.
“Why is it so special when HBO releases one, but yet we’re putting out documentaries all the time? Some of them were really good, I thought, and they just kind of fell through the cracks and just didn’t make sense to me,” Simons said.
“The big appeal, something that nobody’s seen before, is that each one’s going to be different. That’s the rut I think HBO’s gotten into. Well, there’s a lot of ruts they’ve gotten in.”
“Same narrator, it’s done the same way. It’s very predictable. I thought the Ted Williams one was really good, but why do it? It’s 2009, the guy’s been dead for six years, there’s a huge book about him — really, that’s your choice? I just think they’re dropping the ball a little bit, and we’re taking the ball and dunking it, and we’re going to blow them away about this.”
Researching those quotes, it dawns on me just why so many folks in the sports doc space I’ve talked to who are not partnered with ESPN haven’t been shy in expressing some level of disdain towards Simmons and ESPN. That said, Simmons more or less called his shot as 30 For 30 and ESPN have knocked off HBO, who seems to be throttling down their original sports content output.
While many others have jumped in the game drafting off ESPN’s success, the reality is that in this day and age where fans are thirsty for this type of content and social media helps to drive awareness and distribution, to really “win” and not just “play” the quality content game, you have to really be constructed properly from an organizational standpoint.
Exit 31, ESPN’s folding of premium brands under one banner or as SportsGrid labeled it, “ESPN To Combine All Quality, Non-Bullshit Entities Into New Unit“, is ESPN’s forward thinking approach to expand and extend their advantage of developing, producing, distributing, and promoting quality content across ESPN’s portfolio of brands.
Although all of the usual suspects in the media space theoretically have the ability to do this, the fact is that nobody is doing so outside of ESPN and NFL Films. Some examples below:
– Several weeks back I had some friends over for drinks. SportsCenter was on in the background as it normally is when friends are catching up and something needs to be on in the background. Out of nowhere it became the center of attention as the SC Featured special on the Mendota football teamcaptivated a normally chatty group of friends. It was almost 15 minutes long and for the most part, dead silence. When it ended, I think a couple of people were a bit teary eyed.
But the Mendota SC Featured just wasn’t 15 minutes on 1 night of SportsCenter. I was actually going to list out the various ESPN platforms I stalked the great story across and beyond, but alas ESPN Front Row has a comprehensive list.
“The “SC Featured” Mendota story will debut on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” at 9 a.m. ET that day, with the story expanded into a one-hour “SC Featured” special at 11 a.m. on ESPN2. “SportsCenter,” ESPN.com, ESPN Deportes and ABC News are also scheduled to have versions of the story.”
While it’s not 30 for 30, the SC Featured brand is gaining steam and ESPN is delving into more of these kinds of stories on a cross-platform basis. From Mendota to Marge Schott to Blake Bortles at the draft. That said, the point is that ESPN can invest in storytelling and worry about how to package the stories and where to tell them later. Some of the SC Featured could have in fact been 30 for 30’s that didn’t have enough meat on the bone but found distribution here.
– The same can be said about 30 For 30 Shorts. I’ve largely ignored them for the simple fact that I strongly prefer to watch good content on my comfy couch, in front of my big TV, and often with some food or drink to further optimize the experience (very George Costanza like). I have no idea how people do the Netflix on their IPad on the Subway thing.
I knew I was missing out, but I also knew it was probably a matter of time until they found their way onto my television. Over the past couple of months the series has transitioned sporadically onto television. Since then, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Judging Jewell and The Holy Grail among others.
Again, ESPN has an advantage here as they can utilize Grantland as a distribution vehicle and 30 for 30 as a brand awareness vehicle to distribute these short form documentaries but also repurpose them down the line on ESPN television channels and perhaps paid streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray as well. Others could make higher quality docs and try to follow a similar distribution and promotion strategy, but ultimately the splash made would be a lot smaller without having those developed brands help the cause.
– But it’s not just limited to ESPN. NFL Films has a similar scale in terms of production of high quality content and distribution brands and channels. This year NFL Films got a lot of extra mileage out of their A Football Life brand by repackaging content that ran on other platforms and under other brands. The Vince Lombardi episode was more or less an exact clone of HBO’s Lombardi that ran several years ago which was produced by NFL Films. The Bill Parcells episode was more or less a copy of the NFL Network’s “Bill Parcells: Reflections On A Life In Football” from several years ago. An episode of NFL Films Presents had a feature on the history of the official NFL footballs which was basically an extended segment from The Football Life episode on ‘The History Of The Forward Pass’.
This isn’t a “gotcha” type revelation for NFL Films. They have a glut of content from interviews, mic’d players and coaches, and game footage as well. While we don’t think of them as one of the big boys, the fact is that NFL Films spans ESPN, NFLN, HBO, NBCSN, and Showtime has a wealth of content, brands, and platforms to place high quality content after the fact.
Other media companies are certainly motivated to get in the quality content game, but the problem is that it’s expensive and they often don’t have a strategy, organization, and cohesiveness to make the juice worth the squeeze.
Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports can borrow from 60 minutes and vice versa, but that’s not nearly enough to make the economies of scale work in their favor. In fact, I really feel bad for the Showtime sports gang. They’ve picked up where HBO has left off in terms of cranking out sports content and yet, it’s largely crickets. I never hear about their content via promos, social media, or even an email from their PR folks which blows my mind. I actually feel lucky to have been alert enough to catch the docs they have done over the past year.
Fox has a glut of networks and websites, but many of them are still in their infancy and I’m not 100% sold Fox is as motivated to penetrate this space as others are.
NBC/Comcast certainly has a lot of pieces in place to cross-pollinate their platforms and brands with high quality content and often produce some for the Olympics but they too seem to struggle in high quality original content distribution and platform cross polination. I’ll give you a prime example.
During the 2010 Olympics, Tom Brokaw did an hour long special on the Canadian city of Gander and its significance to 9/11. It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Google any variation of “NBC Gander” “Gander Brokaw” and so on, and what you’ll find is articles and message boards galore on how good it was. In fact many of the search results are people who want to watch it again, buy a DVD of it, or send a link to friends to watch it. It was that good.
Want to watch it now?
Well you can’t. It’s lost to the ether. Parts of it are online on crappy tube sites in low quality definition, but if you really wanted to check out one of the better things broadcasted during a sporting event or from a sporting channel.. tough luck, no dice.
I know NBC likes to say their Olympic features and so on are accessible but the reality is, once the Olympics wrap up, fans need to have that stuff pushed to them rather than having to pull it themselves. That’s the difference between ESPN and everyone else. ESPN can plop whatever they want onto SportsCenter under whatever label they want (Grantland, 30 for 30, SC Featured, OTL, E:60, 538, etc) and they’re going to get a pop in terms of interest, awareness, and ratings.
The reality is that while ESPN may have not reinvented the wheel in terms of original storytelling content, they pretty much have in terms of brands and platforms. Everyone else who wants to play in the space can and will find some level of success but at the end of the day, ESPN is going to dominate this space for the foreseeable future and the birth of Exit 31 shows they’re not content to just stay put going forward.