Two weeks ago, Netflix released its behind-the-scenes tennis docuseries Break Point. A golf-focused Full Swing is due next month, offering a Formula 1: Drive to Survive-style recounting of the PGA Tour’s tumultuous 2022. In between, an entirely different competition has captivated Netflix viewers: Physical 100—a South Korean reality show that pits Olympians, influencers, and military personnel against each other in various fitness competitions for a cash prize. The show reached No. 5 on the platform’s U.S. TV rankings Friday.
So it goes on the service, which still has the power to drive cultural conversation, but where predicting what will go viral next is a fool’s errand. As sports properties continue to chase F1-like popularity pops, they’re battling all sorts of alternatives for user attention—and starting to look more like that competition.
The blending is particularly apparent on Netflix, which does not have a dedicated sports page (largely because it lacks live rights) like most other major streaming apps. Internally, sports does occupy “a unique programming category by itself,” according to Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s VP overseeing unscripted and documentary series, including sports. But a big part of the success of Drive to Survive and its siblings, he added, was sharing a philosophy with the platform’s other documentary projects.
“It was just a decision we made and it was great to see that that same style of storytelling and presentation works just as well in the sports world as it did in the crime or pop culture or what-have-you genres as well,” Riegg said.
Before Drive to Survive, Box to Box Films cofounder James Gay-Rees won an Oscar for an Amy Winehouse documentary. Before showrunning Break Point, Kari Lia told stories about genetics and the water crisis.
The tennis show marked the beginning of an impressive six-week stretch for Box to Box. Two days after Full Swing (which was co-produced by Vox Media Studios) premieres, the second season of surfing show Make or Break returns to Apple TV+. A week later, Drive to Survive’s fifth season debuts.
By the end of February, the production company will have released more than 20 hours of behind-the-scenes sports docuseries content this year. For comparison, the NFL playoffs transpire over the course of roughly 40 hours of live TV. It will be a clear display of how the company, along with its streaming partners, have established a new way of watching sports.
The idea of non-live sports content is not novel, of course. The recent innovation has largely been proving that shows don’t need to come out immediately following the events they chronicle. Also, lesser known subjects can carry programs if they’re captivating. Basically: good stories are enough.
There might be something special about sports—the way games draw out human emotions and establish compelling stakes. But when it comes to telling those stories, there might be nothing special at all.
Netflix is set to move into live programming this March, when it airs a Chris Rock comedy special. But company leaders have stuck by their assertions that major sports rights are not in the cards. “We’ve not seen a profit path to renting big sports,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in December. “We’re not anti-sports, we’re just pro-profit.”
Still, Riegg said, Netflix executives have thought about how they could theoretically expand their sports offerings to serve the people who get hooked by the shows and want to delve deeper into those worlds—periodic updates or discussions, for example. For now though, the company is content to mint new fans who might go elsewhere to catch additional action. Riegg predicts that will happen with Full Swing.
“I one-thousand-percent think that people are suddenly gonna go, ‘Oh my god, I love player X-Y-Z’ and I bet they will tune in,” he said. “That’s no different I think than what we’ve seen with Drive to Survive and I think what we’re going to see with tennis, especially as these episodes continue to roll out.”
And what’s next for Box to Box? Well, maybe a competition show.
“I can definitely see us diving into that world in the next couple of years for sure,” Box to Box cofounder Paul Martin said, citing Sylvester Stallone’s The Contender series and the UK’s Superstars competition program as bygone favorites of his.
“I used to make game shows. It was about, can I get the audience invested in these characters that were about to play stupid games to win a bunch of money?” he said. “It’s just storytelling at the end of the day, and if you do it well, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Formula One, tennis, coal mining, or whatever.
“Good storytelling is good storytelling.”
WHAT ELSE I’M WATCHING:
- Apple Watch is now the “official wearable” of the World Surf League, which will use the smartwatch to give surfers real-time scoring information. This seems like a perfect-fit sponsorship, and, along with next week’s Super Bowl halftime show, it’s further evidence that Apple’s marketing team is looking to delve deeper into the sports world.
- The XFL has brought in startup Virtual Tables to set up a series of exclusive digital fan events this year featuring conversations and “personalized digital keepsakes” that, yes, could soon be rendered as NFTs.
- As a number of top tech companies face layoffs, sports projects were bound to be affected. One of them is Unity’s sports and live entertainment division, which had been led by ex-Liverpool FC CEO Peter Moore and was working on creating 3D sports broadcasts with the likes of the UFC. Moore’s team members were among the hundreds Unity let go this month.
I need the full oral history on Patrick Beverley grabbing someone’s camera so he could show a photo of a missed foul call to a referee (and get a technical foul for doing so, obviously).