Netflix recently announced Box to Box films, the production company behind the hit docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive, will produce two more documentary series, focused on the PGA Tour and professional tennis’ Grand Slam events, for the streaming service. Brandon Riegg (VP, Nonfiction Series & Comedy Specials, Netflix) told Bloomberg the PGA, ATP and WTA “took notice of the ‘Drive to Survive’ effect” (see: TV ratings for F1 races in the U.S. are +40% since the docuseries’ debut in 2018) and hope to replicate it in their respective sports. Former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said there is plenty of evidence to support the notion. If executed properly, he said, “this form of programming does hit a younger demo, so they are new fans.” But he warns that a docuseries is not enough to convert a viewer into a lifelong fan. It “can attract [viewers] for a look-see,” Greenburg said. “[Those individuals won’t] become permanent fans, though, unless the sport holds up its end of the bargain.” He cited boxing as a cautionary tale: HBO’s 24/7 series, and shows like it, have been able to drive meaningful pay-per-view sales for a number of individual fights, but the fan base has dwindled over the last 15 years.
JWS’ Take: Greenburg (president, Ross Greenburg Productions) knows a thing or two about the all-access sports docuseries genre; he created it back in 2001 with the launch of Hard Knocks. He has since had a hand in producing a long line of behind-the-scenes sports docuseries, including 24/7, Road to the Winter Classic, A Season With and Quest for the Stanley Cup.
But he’s not the only former TV executive who recognizes the benefits of taking innovative, all-access approaches to non-live sports programming. Ron Wechsler, a longtime ESPN and NBC Sports programming executive, pointed out that “24/7 was obviously a huge boon to HBO and its [boxing] PPVs. A lot of people argue The Ultimate Fighter saved the UFC and really kick-started its growth. Hard Knocks helped the NFL and its sustained growth. So, [F1 and] Drive to Survive is just a late, prominent example.”
But Wechsler remains “a bit bearish on whether they can kind of capture that same cultural zeitgeist” with the upcoming docuseries. “Some of the timing elements [Drive to Survive benefited from] are not there, and some of the naturally compelling background elements,” like the pageantry that surrounds each F1 race, are not there, either. “There are a bunch of factors that will make [Drive to Survive’s success] hard to replicate,” he said.
Getting the leagues, governing bodies and individual athletes to fully buy in also makes it a challenge. Greenburg said every league and governing body “talks a good game. But once you get on the ground and start shooting, will the doors remain open or will they start shutting?” he asked, seemingly informed by his own experience. If Box to Box is unable to truly pull back the curtain, the show will suffer.
Wechsler still believes it is “absolutely the right move.” Both sports, he said, “need to innovate and more access and superior storytelling is what fans want.”
History has shown a well-executed, all-access docuseries has the potential to become a cultural phenomenon and give the associated league a “foot in the door” with new fans, Greenburg said. “When we launched 24/7 with Mayweather and De La Hoya, it drove the pay-per-view numbers up from where we had been on a consistent basis for the previous 15 years. We thought [the fight] would do 1.2 million buys, [it] ended up doing 2.5 million, and most people credited 24/7 because what it did was drive up major interest, particularly among young demos that had never been exposed to the sport before.”
As noted, the boxing audience has waned in recent years, and Greenburg says a sport must be able to stand on its own merits to hold onto new fans. With so much competition for the fan’s time and attention, that may mean taking risks with the game presentation. “The leagues and all of these sanctioning organizations have to look at their sport and break down the walls,” he said. “They have to [be willing to] give the fan access to the locker room and different aspects of the game, audio-wise and video-wise, that they haven’t given to date. Coaches, owners and general managers have to adapt to the fact that fans want the inside story. This is not about sending a sideline reporter out to give an injury update. This is about really getting behind the scenes during the action. The next generation of producers in sports television, they are going to try to break down the ultimate barrier, which is game-time, all-access,” to generate future growth for sports leagues.
It is logical to wonder if the pool of prospective new fans is large enough to support every sport taking a stab at all-access, non-live content (note: Box to Box is doing a docuseries on World Surf League, too). Greenburg believes it is. “Sports have demonstrated over many years that there is always [room to grow the audience],” he said.
While few dispute Drive to Survive was a positive development for the sport, not everyone is convinced the TV show is responsible for its growth in the U.S. market. Wechsler said the U.S. fan’s increasing desire to watch the best athletes on earth (as opposed to just domestically), the rise of streaming technology (making it easier for U.S. fans to watch races as they air live) and a two-hour broadcast window that didn’t bump up against major sports competition, made F1 a sport primed to grow in the U.S., anyway. F1’s 2017 ownership change (Liberty Media bought it from Bernie Ecclestone) and ESPN’s acquisition of the domestic broadcast rights were also undoubtedly factors in the sport’s rise. For what it’s worth, Netflix has never claimed the show has affected F1’s live ratings. Netflix declined to comment on the docuseries’ impact beyond what it said in the press releases surrounding the two announcements.