Can Ross Greenburg Get NBC Sports On Equal Footing As ESPN In The Sports Documentary Space?

Not too long ago the career path of being a sports documentary filmmaker was thought to be a black hole of talent, hard work, and ambition. Recognition (and more importantly money) was hard to come by. Occasionally a film would break out beyond just film festivals and make some waves on the national scene, but in most years outside of a handful of HBO successes within the genre, getting paid and getting viewers was nearly impossible.

Although it’s not quite clear what the driving factors are behind the new found appetite sports media companies have for sports documentaries, it’s clear the genre has made significant strides of late with a very bullish outlook going forward.

It was a little more than a month ago, I was contemplating writing and submitting a guest opinion piece to the Sports Business Journal on the seemingly eroding ambitions of the ESPN Films group and their signature 30 for 30 series. I had blogged wishfully multiple times about ESPN’s stagnation on the sports documentary front. It was a certainly a relief and a positive sign when ESPN announced they were doubling down on the 30 for 30 project and were expanding the scope of the brand. ESPN’s continued commitment to the genre was a huge breath of fresh air as it seemed that over the past couple of years, the programming had drifted a bit in quality and was beginning to alienate some audience segments in an attempt to pander to its core audience.

Piggybacking on ESPN’s ambitious plans is NBC Sports who is picking up the pace with Ross Greenburg, who signed on late last year to help produce more original programming focusing on the NHL. If you don’t know Greenburg, you should as he has 51 Sports Emmys and 8 Peabodys and now will apparently be bringing the Midas touch to films outside of hockey for NBC. The first documentary will star former University of Texas and Houston Oilers Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell. (Ed Note: Thanks to @glokkenspx for pointing out a scheduled Greenburg doc for the NBC mothership this Sunday on Jack Nicklaus’ 1962 U.S. Open victory) From the Houston Chronicle:

“Former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, in association with NFL Films and NBC Sports Group, will produce a documentary on Campbell that is expected to air on NBC Sports Network. It will cover Campbell’s career from his state championship season at  John Tyler through his Heisman Trophy-winning career at Texas and his Pro Football Hall of Fame days with the Oilers with a special emphasis, in these days when so much attention is paid to the health of former NFL players, to Campbell’s rehab in the wake of knee replacement surgery.”

I’d surmise the Campbell documentary will be typical high quality content we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Greenburg and NFL Films. It will be interesting to see if NBC Sports follows ESPN’s lead by beginning to brand a series of documentaries and ramping up the frequency of films that air. They certainly have time to fill on the network with more docs.

Also dabbling in the space are the likes of Showtime who has rolled out The Franchise and Game Of Honor, FX with UFC Primetime, Big Ten Network’s The Journey, NBA TV just deubted the Dream Team documentary, and the soon to debut Pac 12 network could also join the fray picking up Peter Berg’s proposed series following Mike Leach. Meanwhile HBO continues to lead the pack and I’d imagine NBC is stocking up on talented people for the upcoming Olympics, which always delivers on well produced human interest pieces.

Suddenly being in the sports documentary space doesn’t seem so bleak and what many thought to be a limited high end niche might be evolving into a valuable and stable part of a network’s content mix. The high quality of the sports documentary genre could become a bit diluted over time but in terms of furthering fans’ knowledge and getting them talking, it’s extremely encouraging to see media companies becoming more active on this front.

About Ben Koo

Owner and editor of @AwfulAnnouncing. Recovering Silicon Valley startup guy. Fan of Buckeyes, A's, dogs, naps, tacos. and the old AOL dialup sounds

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