The Bad Sport series of “intersection of sports and crime” documentaries Netflix announced in September has all six of its installments so far out now, and they’re getting some strong reviews. The series covers everything from Arizona State basketball point-shaving to match-fixing allegations in soccer, cricket, and figure skating to race car driver Randy Lanier’s drug-smuggling empire to contract horse killer Tommy Burns’ role in an insurance fraud scheme. Recently, Bad Sport executive producer Tim Wardle spoke to AA about the series, and said he got involved thanks to his company (RAW, which produces the series) thinking he’d be a good fit for it.
“I work for a company called RAW, a UK production company that’s made all kinds of things, lots in the U.S., ranging from Gold Rush on Discovery to Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy for CNN to a lot of shows for Netflix. I’d made this documentary called Three Identical Strangers that did pretty well in the U.S., played in theaters and stuff, and I was developing other documentary projects.”
“And they said ‘Oh, we’ve got this project we’re doing for Netflix about sports and corruption. Would you like to come on board and EP?’ That was really the first time I’d heard about it. I think it was jointly dreamt up by RAW and Netflix.”
Wardle said the idea intrigued him because of his love of sports, but he wanted a lot of people on the series to come at it from a non-sports background.
“I am a really big sports fan, but interestingly, most of the people that worked on the series aren’t huge sports fans. I deliberately hired people who weren’t big sports fans, because the best sports stories, for me, are the ones that don’t foreground the sport too much. It’s important, but we were trying to tap into more of the universal themes in this.”
He said the series wound up telling maybe even more universal stories than he thought it could.
“I think that’s what surprised me really early on. It’s almost like Shakespearian levels of betrayal and greed and moral complexity in ways that I hadn’t necessarily thought it would be. And I think it’s because sport has such good metrics; in sports, you’re either cheating or you’re not, there are rules, things are black and white. And when people start to transgress, there’s a very clear metric for whether they’re cheating or not. Which from a storytelling point of view, is very helpful.”
Wardle said sports also provides the background for stories of people with exceptional skills who wind up facing widely-relatable issues.
“Sport in general, the tiny percentage of people who kind of make it in any sport, it lends itself to amazing stories of the people who didn’t quite make it, or the people who tried to take a shortcut. …It’s themes of human weakness, greed, betrayal, those kinds of things. Almost all of them are basically about essentially decent people who made bad choices. And for me, in docs and in drama, good people doing bad things is always interesting, as is bad people doing good things. What I’m less interested are the traditional classic hero narratives of sport; there are some great ones, but I just feel they’re very familiar.”
Wardle said the six documentaries have some thematic overlap, but they wound up being quite different projects.
“[They’re about] essentially decent people making bad choices and doing bad things. Randy Lanier being a classic example, a real kind of hippie, a peace and love guy, who ends up doing things that result in all kinds of bad stuff happening. That would be the overarching theme, but they are very distinct; it’s an anthology series, and we wanted to empower each director to have a very different style and tone.”
“Initially, we thought they would have more crossover in terms of graphics and music. And our poor old composer was hired to do the music for a series, and he ended up scoring six different documentaries. But I quite like the anthology nature of it. Often with those kinds of stories, you get one or two weak stories, but I feel genuinely they’re quite strong across the board.”
Speaking of Lanier, Wardle said that episode (episode #2, Need For Weed) is telling a truly remarkable story.
“That story’s just unbelievable. It’s one of those so-strange-you-can’t-believe-its-real kinds of stories, which RAW had done a lot of, with Three Identical Strangers and Don’t F**k With Cats [a story about hunting an internet killer] and some of these other things. This is probably the closest to that out of them; you cannot believe it, but it’s true. And out of all the sports, this was the one I knew the least about. But it’s kind of Days of Thunder meets Blow or Scarface, and that attracted me to it.”
“I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that he was able to race at the top level while simultaneously personally overseeing massive trafficking, flying out to Colombia between races. You see him personally unloading huge tankers with vast amounts of marijuana. It’s just crazy. Even one of those jobs would be very, very stressful, and hard to come down from, and he was doing both at the same time.”
Wardle said the story on Lanier (pictured above) also stands out because it’s about an outsider trying to break into the big-time racing world, and seeing drug smuggling as a way to get the money he needs.
“I think the love of racing was there from an early age, and then he got into small marijuana dealing early. What’s nice about that one is it’s got layers. It’s also about class; he’s a guy who doesn’t have the money to make it in racing and will never get a shot normally, and he finds a way to do that, to afford that. It just happens to be illegal. And he happens to be very good at it, at both of those things. People say ‘Follow your passion, do what you’re good at.’ Well, he’s good at smuggling drugs, and he’s good at racing cars, so he does that. It’s kind of like the equivalent of being a NFL player and also playing Major League Baseball; I quite admire that he’s able to multitask on that level.”
Episode #5 (Horse Hitman) has some crossover with Lanier’s story in that it’s the story of someone (titular horse hitman Tommy “Sandman” Burns) from a poorer background who winds up in a world of crime. Wardle said that episode’s the furthest to the true crime side the series goes.
“If there was an outlier in there, it’s that one, because the sport is more in the background. But I think again, it’s a story about money and class. He’s a poorer guy and he’s in this world of incredible riches and wealth, and he’s being exploited. The Randy story is somewhat the inverse of that; Randy’s the blue-collar guy who’s exploiting loopholes and doing illegal stuff. But they’re both kind of fitting into a world that doesn’t want them, isn’t comfortable with them, because they’re not from the right background. The horse one is the closest to being more in the crime space and less in the sports space.”
“The genius of the idea for Netflix is to combine these two genres that are really popular. 30 for 30 and certainly Untold, they’ve touched on the edges of crime, but this is just being upfront about that. And these films all have different degrees of the crime versus the sport, and the horse one is weighted quite heavily to the crime side.”
Episode #6 (Fallen Idol) is on former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje and the allegations of matchfixing against him. Netflix is in a lot of countries around the world, including places where cricket content is particularly hot, but the base story here might be more off the radar for many U.S. sports fans. But Wardle said he thinks the story works even without knowing the details of cricket, and it’s a notable entry in this series given the profile of Cronje within that world.
“I think that’s really interesting because it’s dealing with massive social issue stuff, like what the U.S. is dealing with, around race, government, and leadership. I think he’s a fairly universal figure. Out of all the people [profiled], I think he’s the most high-profile. As someone in there says, he was second only to Mandela in terms of how people perceived him.”
“What is interesting about that, and the horse doc as well, is those are seen as high-class sports sports that rich and wealthy people play and watch. To see those tainted by scandal and corruption is fascinating.”
Fallen Idol also stood out because its central subject is no longer around (Cronje died in a plane crash in 2002). Wardle said that can be very difficult to handle in a documentary, as the main subject’s comments are often so critical to drawing the viewer in. But he said he was amazed at the emotions the film brought in.
“It’s very emotional, that film, in a way that really surprised me. Normally when you don’t have the subject, he’s deceased, you don’t really have a person to bring color to the story, you’ve only got them in archive [footage]. And he isn’t the most emotional speaker, it’s very hard to connect. But it’s very emotional. It ties his story into the national civil rights movement in South Africa, and there’s lots going on there.”
Wardle said Fallen Idol also was different because of the level of success Cronje (seen above) was at, and the small amounts of money he was accused of taking.
“I think it’s shocking and universal because it’s a guy at the very pinnacle, and the sums of money that we’re being told about are relatively small. So in some ways, it’s the most unbelievable; this is a guy who’s got everything, and he’s risking it…for what?! And the film probes at what might have been his motivation, but it’s color for the audience to make their mind up. Whereas with Randy, it’s like ‘Yeah, he wants to race, and the only way he can do it is to import and smuggle drugs.'”
Wardle said he’s hopeful they’ll be able to do more Bad Sport stories, as he thinks the project’s mixture of sports and crime stories stands out in a crowded field.
“We would love to do more Bad Sport. I think there are a lot of sports docs out there at the moment, and maybe, as with true crime, there’s a danger of reaching saturation. I think what’s good is when you can find hybrids within genres and combine genres together. So for me, that’s what makes Bad Sport exciting, and that’s why I’d be keen to do more, as compared to just generic sports docs. But if it’s the right sports project, of course! I love sports docs, and they’re great.”
He said another key part of what’s made these ones work so far is the amount of access they’ve been able to get to key figures without sacrificing editorial control.
“I think what Bad Sport also offers is it’s a real antidote to a lot of the sports docs we see now, which are clearly made with a degree of editorial control by a sports star or their family, and [the filmmakers] are the people they’ve brought in to oversee that story. With these docs, nothing was off limits. And it’s people talking about the worst aspects of sports. Most docs, you see people talking about the best things. So that’s kind of the emphasis, and I feel it’s probably more real because of that.”
All six Bad Sport episodes are now available on Netflix.
[Photos via Netflix]