Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls of the 1990s didn’t lose when a championship was at stake, so it figures that a documentary chronicling that era would win an award as well.
On Saturday, ESPN’s The Last Dance won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. The 10-part docuseries beat out Netflix’s Tiger King, PBS’ American Masters, HBO’s McMillion$, and Hulu’s Hillary for the win.
Considering how popular Tiger King was, debuting on Netflix when nearly everyone began sheltering at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this might be surprising to some. But The Last Dance became a cultural phenomenon when it premiered in April and became Sunday night appointment television during its initial five-week run on ESPN.
With no sports being played during the coronavirus shutdown and plenty of airtime to fill, fans suggested ESPN move The Last Dance up from its originally scheduled June launch. Those suggestions soon became demands.
Network executives tried to control expectations by pointing out that director Jason Hehir hadn’t yet finished the documentary. But rumblings of ESPN pushing the documentary to the spring gained volume with new promos saying “Coming Soon.” By the end of March, the network announced that The Last Dance would premiere in mid-April. (That scheduled allowed later episodes to be finished as the early chapters aired.)
As could have been expected, The Last Dance was a hit for ESPN once it premiered. Set against the backdrop of Jordan’s 13 seasons with the Bulls, the documentary followed the team’s drive for a sixth (and third consecutive) NBA championship during the 1997-98 season. The prevailing belief through that campaign was that general manager Jerry Krause would break up the team, even if those players and coaches won another NBA title.
A generation of fans who never saw Jordan play got to see how phenomenal he was. They learned about the larger cast of characters surrounding him, such as Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and coach Phil Jackson. Those who watched that era of NBA basketball enjoyed the nostalgia trip. And the internet as a whole delighted in memes created from Jordan’s facial expressions responding to what rivals said about him and numerous grudges the superstar engineered to motivate himself.
The first two episodes televised on April 19 averaged 6.1 million viewers, nearly doubling the audience for the network’s two previously highest-rated documentaries. Ratings stayed strong through the docuseries’ five-week run, averaging 5.6 million viewers. ABC even broadcast an after-show (albeit with plenty of its own primetime schedule to fill) hosted by Stephen A. Smith, despite all 10 episodes airing on ESPN to that point.
The Last Dance launched on Netflix July 19 and is currently available for viewing on the streaming service.
“Thank you to Michael Jordan himself for giving us his time, his honesty and his candor and the other 105 people who sat down and gave their time and their honesty to make the story what it was,” Hehir said in his acceptance speech (via Deadline). “I hope we brought a little bit of brightness to a dark and difficult year and I hope you all stay safe and be well.”
The Last Dance‘s Emmy win is the first earned by ESPN in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series after three previous nominations for 30 for 30 films. The network’s 30 for 30 Shorts won an Emmy for Outstanding Short-Format Nonfiction Program in 2014.