Off-Court Drama

A Major League pitcher reaches the pinnacle of his craft by throwing his first no-hitter and leading his team to the playoffs.

For years, he was celebrated for accomplishing the rare feat. Later, though, it was discovered that the player had a unique competitive edge that special day: He was stoned on Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD.

Such a script might be too far-fetched to be believable, but sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

The psychadelic plight of 1970s all-star pitcher Dock Ellis was the premise for a 2014 Showtime sports documentary No No: A Dockumentary, one of a number of sports-themed documentaries that are taking swings at telling often dramatic and improbable stories within the world of sports.

“If you invented a fictional Lawrence Taylor or Mike Tyson or Don King, you couldn’t come close to their real personas, because they’re bigger than life,” Stephen Espinoza, Showtime Sports executive vice president and general manager, said. “You couldn’t write them, but in real life, they’re must-see content.”


Networks such as ESPN, HBO and Epix — as well as several regional sports networks — are also drawing on popular sports and the athletes that play them to create compelling stories that appeal to both game aficionados and casual fans.

Network executives said sports add a unique dimension to a documentary genre that is often perceived as wonky and boring.

“Sports has inherent drama to it … you can’t write these outcomes that happen in sports all the time,” John Dahl, the ESPN Films executive producer, said. “Documentaries don’t have to be medicine — we’re not here to make you sit down and get a lesson from us. They’re supposed to be compelling and entertaining, and I think the passion and the points of view that we bring to these stories help keep it fresh.”

With a seemingly infinite number of imaginative and creative sports stories, advances in technology that make it easier for producers to create shows, and a growing digital-media arena that allows viewers to watch these stories at their own pace, executives say sports docs are hitting a home run for networks.

“Documentaries truly offer networks a chance to show their creativity, risk-taking and commitment to trying something new and unproven,” said Rick Bernstein, senior vice president and executive producer for HBO, which has been creating sports documentaries for more than 25 years.

While on-the-field action is the underlying theme of sports documentaries, executives say that the games also provide a springboard for a discussion of more pressing, social issues such as poverty, racism, and sexism.

Epix’s recent slate of sports documentaries tackles social issues in the context of sports, CEO Mark Greenberg said.

Whether it’s $chooled: The Price of College Sports, about often poor minority student athletes, or The Forgotten Four, about four players who broke the National Football League’s color barrier in 1946, Epix’s documentaries straddle the line of sports and civil rights, Greenberg said. “Sports are often a form of escapism for a lot of people and we make heroes out of many of these athletes, but they also provide life lessons for us. With some of these documentaries, you have to ask yourself, ‘Are they sports or are they real-life issues?’ I love when you can get to that level and tell stories in a compelling way.”

Showtime’s Espinoza said the premium programmer’s sports-documentary strategy is to find compelling stories that will appeal to both sports fans and non-fans. He pointed to the network’s documentary LT: The Life & Times. It featured Lawrence Taylor, a hall of fame football player but a flawed and controversial person — one that both sports fans and non-fans could identify with.

Other documentar ies, including Epix’s In the Moment series of athlete profiles, HBO’s upcoming special on National Basketball Association legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Showtime’s upcoming Kobe Bryant’s Muse — an intimate look at one of this era’s greatest basketball stars — offer unique perspectives of the athletes we follow closely on the field, but know very little about when they’re off of it.

“We always look for the appeal both to the hard-core sports fan, as well as the person who doesn’t know a thing about sports,” Espinoza said.

The ESPN Films division, which created the “30 for 30” series that highlights iconic people and events in sports history, as well as the “Nine for IX” series marking the 40th anniversary of federal Title IX legislation that created opportunities for women in sports, have also allowed a diverse group of producers to tell stories that have captured their imaginations but may not have played out on a national stage.

From Selma director Ava DuVernay’s “Nine for IX” profile of tennis star Venus Williams’s quest to get equal pay for female players at Wimbledon, Venus VS, to the Eva Longoria-produced Versus episode highlighting racist taunts hurled at a child singer who sang the national anthem during a 2013 NBA finals game in a mariachi charro suit, Dahl said the documentaries offer a perspective on sports that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

“We’ll continue to look at those stories that transcend sports and go deeper than what’s happening on the field,” ESPN’s Dahl said. “You don’t have to be a hard-core sports fan to enjoy these — it’s about compelling storytelling, not just about Xs and Os. We’ll continue to look at those stories that resonate across all kinds of lines.”

Executives said sports documentaries have a much longer shelf life than live sports events, allowing the shows to generate even more views for programmers’ online and video-on-demand channels.

“The unique value of sports documentaries is their repeatability — that’s not the case for live sports,” Showtime’s Espinoza noted. “Not only does it initially draw sports fans, but as we replay it, it draws other viewers as well.”


The docs translate well in the digital media space, where sports fans can get their fill of the shows on their smartphones, tablets and computers, as well as the small screen. ESPN in 2012 launched a series of “30 for 30” short films on for Website visitors to watch at their leisure.

“There’s an audience for it and a lot of our films are shown through Twitter links, so we know there’s a desire to see more stories told and to tell them in as many interesting and diverse ways as possible,” ESPN’s Dahl said.

Added Greenberg: “These are very technologically engaged people, so they can watch it on their iPads and on their Xboxes. This group loves playing with these toys and they’ve become game changers in terms of how we view these documentaries.”

Given the vast array of sports stories to delve into, executives said they are not worried about an oversaturation of sports documentary content. “The only limitation on sports documentaries is the availability of stories,” Showtime’s Espinoza said. “There seems to be an endless supply of great stories within sports, and it’s constantly getting new ones along the way. I don’t see much of a ceiling on sports documentaries.”

Added Bernstein: “As long as great storylines exist — and look what just happened with Ohio State winning the national championship with a third-string QB — there will not be an oversaturation problem.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.