Yesterday, ESPN announced Man In the Arena, a nine-part documentary focusing on Tom Brady’s career and set for release in 2021.
The series, which is being produced in partnership with Brady’s own company 199 Productions, is clearly following the blueprint set by The Last Dance. That docuseries did big ratings for ESPN, and helped drive the national sports conversation while games were on hold thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also drew some criticism as more of a hagiography than a documentary, with many noting Michael Jordan’s heavy involvement.
And while The Last Dance ended up portraying Jordan in a light that wasn’t completely flattering, it still worked a lot better as entertainment than it did a documentary. People tuning in for something like OJ: Made In America were bound to be disappointed by the structure and insights; it was a definitive recap of the Bulls dynasty, told in a very fun way.
Which brings us to Man In the Arena.
The news inspires two obvious questions: why, and why now?
Tom Brady is inarguably one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, but football isn’t basketball; while a quarterback impacts games more than any other position, it’s hard to argue Brady can possibly have the kind of effect that Jordan had on both ends of the floor. He’s also certainly nowhere close to the cultural icon Jordan is, and that’s not going to change between now and 2021. Kids all over the country that are already wearing Jordans aren’t hoping to get a 64 oz Big Tom water bottle for their birthday. (Only $65 plus shipping!)
And as to timing, Brady is still playing; there’s no way for a series to tell the full story of his career when he’s currently signed to a deal with Tampa Bay that will take him beyond the release date of the show. Granted, The Last Dance didn’t cover the Wizards years either, but the series wasn’t pitched as a look at just one player. It was the story of a dynasty. You could make the case that by doing it now Brady is already hoping to avoid any potential embarrassment if his Florida venture ends up being more of a “Kramer retires to Del Boca Vista” than a “Peyton Manning wins a Super Bowl in Denver.”
No one would argue that Brady, and especially the Patriots dynasty as a whole, isn’t worth a deep-dive documentary. But Brady is a very complicated figure, with multiple scandals either directly or indirectly on his resume. The Last Dance touched on Jordan’s gambling and the rumors that his baseball sojourn was related to a secret gambling suspension, and it also included a somewhat suspect story about the flu game, but Michael Jordan was never suspended for violating competition rules. Nor were the Bulls implicated in multiple cheating schemes. Man In the Arena is going to have to deal with those in some way, and considering the Patriots and Brady’s longstanding denials, it’s hard to envision anything close to an unbiased look at the facts.
Series director Gotham Chopra is a 30 for 30 veteran, but he’s also a Tom Brady content veteran, having helmed Brady’s Tom vs. Time Facebook series and working with 199 Productions on the upcoming Apple TV+ Greatness Code, also announced on Thursday. All of this adds up to a nine-episode series that just feels a bit tired already; the unlikelihood of anything truly new or juicy emerging, the heavy weight of Brady’s involvement, and the lack of nostalgia that helped paper over some flaws in The Last Dance all make it hard to see Man In the Arena taking over the conversation in a similar fashion.
Unless we don’t have sports again next year, in which case all bets are off.