Reality TV’s Got Game

Highly touted Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball won’t play his first nationally televised regular season National Basketball Association game until Oct. 19. But 8 million Facebook Watch users already know who Ball is — along with his loquacious father, LaVar, and his talented siblings — after they tuned in last month to the first episode of the social media site’s new sports reality series, Ball in the Family.

That makes Ball only the latest face both on the court and in a unique content sub-genre. Active and former professional athletes are scoring on the basic cable, reality docuseries field through popular, social media-friendly unscripted shows that focus on the often-unpublicized personal lives of players.

Series such as VH1’s long-running series Basketball Wives — which follows the wives, ex-wives and girlfriends of star NBA players — and E!’s Total Divas, which chronicles the out-of-ring exploits of pro wrestling outfit WWE’s female Superstars, are shining a rare, off-the-field spotlight on famous athletes that’s usually reserved for pop entertainment stars and celebrities.

Related: The Unscripted TV Issue >‘Live PD’ Draws Viewers, and Not All Watch Live

Network executives and show producers said such shows offer a one-two viewing punch by delivering female viewers attracted to the often salacious drama created between athletes and their significant others, and men who want to see their favorite players in a different light.

“We’ve seen tons of reality shows featuring celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, and their celebrity families, but to actually go behind the scenes of an athlete’s life and see what they go through is different,” said Jeff Jenkins, co-president of entertainment and development for Bunim/Murray Productions, which produces Total Divas. “They are trying to support their family; they’re trying to have romantic relationships; they’re trying to advance their careers — rarely do you see that side of them on the screen.”

Glimpse at an Athlete’s Home Team
Indeed, most sports-themed docuseries follow the lives of athletes as they pertain to the on-field action, whether its preparing for a big fight, competing in the heat of the action or basking in the glow of victory or the anguish of a loss. But for most sports-reality series, the field of play is a backdrop to the interactions athletes have with their spouses, girlfriends and families, far away from the bright lights of the stadium.

“Most people just see the athletes when they perform, but there’s a lot of interest in their personal lives,” said Amber Mazzola, president of Machete Productions, responsible for E!’s reality series franchise WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends of Sports Stars). “You see athletes like Tom Brady and [his wife] Gisele [Bündchen] in newspapers in the gossip section — people just love to hear about them on and off the court.”

Related: Reality Joins TV’s Revival Movement

E!’s WAGS L.A. series, which returns for a third season Nov. 1, has spawned two other series — WAGS Miami and WAGS Atlanta — and all of them follow the personal lives of such players as NFL stars Antonio Gates and Julius Peppers and UFC fighter Tito Ortiz. Mazzola said the show has found its niche with E!’s female-skewing fans, and male viewers enjoying a different glimpse at the players. 

“Our audience is still predominantly female, and I don’t think guys are really tuning into the drama of what these wives are going through, but I do think that the fact that these athletes are actually on the show is a draw,” Mazzola added. “I think that a lot of guys tune in because they want to see Julius Peppers or to see Antonio Gates because for them that’s really cool.”

Related: Women Get in the Game

Ball in the Family executive producer and Bunim/Murray Productions vice president of current programming Farnaz Farjam also said that the series, which launched on Facebook Sept. 1, has generated equal amounts of viewer feedback from men and women, although she would not offer up specific gender breakdown numbers.

She did say the first episode of the series drew 8 million streams, which exemplifies the growing audience interest in and fascination for the Los Angeles-based Ball family, much of which has been driven by the often-outlandish comments of father LaVar Ball regarding the talents of his three basketball-playing kids.

Bringing Fans to the Games
Such sports reality shows can turn more female viewers on to live sports content, Farjam said, adding that women may want to extend their experience with the series by watching the star athletes on the field of play.

“Of course guys will watch the games, but if their girlfriends are watching the series, then they’ll be more inclined to watch the Lakers because they’ve fallen in love with ’Zo,” she said.

Related: Spin It to Win It: Cable Networks Find Ratings Gold in Reality-Series Offshoots

Total Divas also generates strong co-viewing numbers for E!, as the cast of female WWE Superstars attract predominately male pro-wrestling fans as well as the network’s core female audience, according to Bunim/Murray’s Jenkins. Nearly four in 10 viewers (38%) of Total Divas' audience are male, the highest male composition across any of E!’s original franchises. Total Divas spinoff series Total Bellas has the second highest male compositon on the network with 32%, according to network officials.

The network will launch season seven of Total Divas on Nov. 1, with the season finale marking the show’s 100th episode.

E! hopes the upcoming season can match or surpass last year’s average 1 million viewers in Nielsen live-plus-3 ratings.

Other entertainment networks are looking to jump into the sports reality arena. Hallmark Channel will launch its first-ever, personality-focused reality series with the 2018 debut of Meet the Peetes, which focuses on the lives of former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and his wife, actress Holly Robinson-Peete.

“When we think about programming that makes people feel good, celebrates the human spirit and family by telling a great story, Meet the Peetes fits all of those criteria,” Hallmark Network executive VP of programming Michelle Vicary said. “It is a family story about a father who was an NFL football player and a mom that’s an actor, but its also a family story that focuses on a mom and a dad that have an autistic son and have made it their life’s work to bring awareness around autism.”

Hallmark also hopes the series will add male viewers to its normally female-skewing audience. Along with the series, Rodney Peete will be involved in the network’s annual Super Bowl counterprogramming special, Kitten Bowl, according to Vicary.

“Rodney Peete is much beloved by sports fans, so I hope that men who are fans of his will come with their wives and sit and watch the series,” she said.

Bunim/Murray’s Jenkins believes that more networks are beginning to see the appeal of athlete-based reality series and will look to develop future series in the genre. One issue that could sack the genre’s forward momentum is whether athletes — as well as the organized sports they play for — will be willing to risk tarnishing their respective brands by airing an athlete’s potentially controversial personal life on television.

“I think if the individual athletes and the individual athletic organizations make themselves open to it, absolutely viewers, buyers and production companies want to do more of this type of programming,” Jenkins said, adding that the company is working on a potential reality docuseries with a retired Los Angeles Lakers player, although he would not reveal specifics.

“The fine line for those athletes and for those other organizations, however, is whether they can balance the image and brand and still allow a documentary crew to follow the ups and downs of a particular individual and organization.”

That, of course, would mean athletes and teams experiencing the kind of “winning” or “losing” only reality stars know about.

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.