30 for 30

With The Last Dance wrapping up on Sunday, May 17, ESPN is planning to follow it up with a bunch of further 30 for 30 installments. These new films include a two-part documentary on Lance Armstrong, a documentary on Bruce Lee, and a documentary on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run battle in 1998. These subjects had previously been revealed during 30 for 30 ads during the last two college football playoff title games, but now we have airdates and more details. Here’s more from ESPN’s announcement Tuesday:

Leading the slate on Sunday, May 24 will be part one of the two-part film, “LANCE,” which features unprecedented access to Armstrong through raw interviews and personal perspective on his full story, the inspiring rise and dramatic fall from grace. Lance is directed by Marina Zenovich (“Fantastic Lies,” “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”). Part two will premiere the following Sunday, May 31. Bao Nguyen’s film “Be Water,” an intimate and very personal look at the life and purpose that motivated Bruce Lee, the martial artist trailblazer and pop culture icon, will debut on Sunday, June 7. Both films received acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Finally, on June 14, AJ Schnack’s, “Long Gone Summer”, an official selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s storied 1998 home run chase following the 1994 MLB strike. For the first time, both men discuss that summer at length, including its lasting legacy and undeniable complications.

Libby Geist, Vice President & Executive Producer, ESPN Films and Original Content said, “It’s a great feeling to bring three more epic documentary projects to sports fans who so need it right now. Moving up these films is no easy task, but it’s absolutely worth the effort to get them on the air for audiences to experience together. It’s a mix of fascinating topics, compelling characters and some of the absolute best storytelling our team has cranked out. The whole ESPN Films team is working hard to entertain fans while we wait for live sports to return and give them a distraction while we go through these hard times.”

Geist’s comments there are notable, as it certainly isn’t easy to get these films ready to run much earlier than initially planned (as the conversation about moving The Last Dance up illustrates). But it absolutely makes sense for ESPN to continue on with the documentary momentum they’ve built with The Last Dance, which has averaged 6.1, 5.9, and 5.5 million viewers across its first three weekends (two episodes each) so far. Those episodes have shattered ESPN’s previous documentary records (3.6 million viewers for You Don’t Know Bo in the post-Heisman slot on ESPN in 2012, and 3.4 million viewers on ABC for the OJ: Made In America premiere in 2016), and it seems likely that further 30 for 30s released during this pandemic will do better than they would normally.

It also helps that these new documentaries will be going to ESPN+ immediately after their premieres. That’s a contrast to The Last Dance, which won’t hit ESPN+ until 2021 (it’s currently available on the ESPN app with an authenticated pay-TV login, and will be available on U.S. Netflix in July, but won’t be on ESPN+ until July 2021). And that’s a further boost for ESPN+, which saw some minor subscriber growth (300,000 net subscribers) from Q1 2020 to Q2 2020 despite a lack of live sports, thanks largely to the bundle offering with Disney+ and Hulu.

Without live sports content, documentaries are even more important than normal for ESPN+ (which has the general 30 for 30 library at this point, just not The Last Dance), and it’s certainly notable that these ones will be available there. So moving these films up makes sense for both linear ESPN and for ESPN+. We’ll see how these documentaries turn out, but it’s certainly interesting to see ESPN moving other documentaries up and continuing with their Sunday documentary programming even after the conclusion of The Last Dance.

[ESPN Press Room]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.