Today’s guest columnist is Ken Solomon, president and CEO of Tennis Channel.
Imagine you’ve just been hired to head a multinational media giant, complete with movie and TV studios, global networks and DTC digital streaming and web platforms all sporting iconic content brands.
Better still, while your competitors scramble to keep up in the content arms race, you’ve also just inherited a solid-gold, character-producing idea factory. Your new, franchise-minting machine creates the infinite storytelling capacity needed to power your empire’s insatiable global platforms—forever. It’s composed of iconic characters and emerging stars, and endless intertwining storylines. And best of all, these heroes are real.
The source of your good programming fortune? DC Comics? Pixar or Star Wars? Guess again. This new “Marvel Universe” is actually built upon good old-fashioned sports stories, and they are already taking over the new programming universe. Today, as we head into our second autumn working from home, we’re seeing the morphing of original sports stories into high volume, high quality entertainment—yet another byproduct of our horrific last 18 months.
Sports-driven original documentaries, scripted series and movies are eating up production slates and gaining velocity, with no end in sight. In the coming months and years, they will be a multibillion-dollar gift that keeps on giving, engaging audiences and thus driving major revenues and long-term asset value.
The catalyst for this explosion was necessitated by a live-coverage-starved viewership and content-hungry programmers in the early days of COVID-19. ESPN reacted smartly, moving the premiere date of its highly anticipated documentary series The Last Dance from July to April 2020. The 10-part program chronicled the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls’ and legend Michael Jordan’s pursuit of a sixth NBA championship in eight years, letting us into an unseen world of one of the greatest dynasties of all time.
The Last Dance proved to be the pandemic era’s first blockbuster, shattering documentary viewing records and becoming the most-watched program on ESPN since the 2020 College Football championship. Then, in a rare (and brilliant) immediate second-window act, the project gave Netflix much-needed relevancy with a massive pop-culture franchise in full cry, just as their original programming reserves began to wane.
Then the floodgates opened, and the blockbusters kept flowing. Take your pick: Tiger, The 100-Foot Wave, Lance. It isn’t limited to documentaries. See: scripted series Ted Lasso or Will Smith’s upcoming King Richard feature about the father of Venus and Serena Williams.
So, have we reached the saturation point with all this new, non-live sports-themed content? Not a chance. Remember in the 1990s, when there were only two or three talk shows on TV, programmers thought even that was over the limit. Then Geraldo Rivera ducked a hurled chair, and suddenly there were more than a dozen daytime talk shows. Remember when “reality TV” was this weirdly engaging new show called Survivor? People laughed the genre off as a low-rent fad—and then reality ate primetime network TV for dessert.
Original sports stories give content-starved programmers everything Marvel does, and more. Real, audience-tested heroes, old and new, battle opponents (and themselves) in a never-ending series of high-stakes showdowns in front of the entire world. Sports naturally touches on the same themes that drive all entertainment: good vs. evil (depending on your allegiances, of course), real people doing extraordinary things, personal triumph over life’s often unfair adversities—and overcoming our own demons—teamwork, leadership and perseverance. This relatability is what makes sports-themed content so valuable.
Audiences will watch, regardless of whether or not they know or like the sport in question. We’ve seen the trend in the Olympics for generations, drawing in viewers via personal features that connect us to the epic struggles of often unfamiliar competition.
We experienced this at Tennis Channel with our first true feature-length documentary in 2018, Strokes of Genius. Based on the book by Tennis Channel analyst L. Jon Wertheim, the film explored the notion of sustained rivalry as a primary driver of human excellence. It tells a sweeping story through the lens of a single meeting between all-time greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—their hard-fought 2008 Wimbledon final, often called the greatest match of all time. We expected tennis fans to watch, and they did. But, more importantly, we achieved our goal of using original storytelling instead of live coverage to show non-tennis fans what’s so special about the sport. Netflix’s hit show Drive to Survive has similarly done a wonderful job of attracting new fans to Formula One racing.
Every epic, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars are spent creating it, comes down to a mano a mano moment in the end. Ultimately, one character or group has to finish the quest by defeating its rival. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker or the Karate Kid, the story always ends this way. So does every sports competition on the planet.
The pandemic has accelerated what was already becoming a paradigm shift for the entertainment industry. Sports-driven original content is now a tectonic wave of incremental value creation that shows no signs of slowing. Programmers would be wise to ride it; a universe of opportunity already lives in our own backyards.
Solomon has three decades of television and multimedia experience with top posts at the Walt Disney Co., Universal Television, DreamWorks, News Corp. and Scripps. Under Solomon’s watch, Tennis Channel has been honored by the International Tennis Hall of Fame and others for its contributions to the sport.