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Thirty Years of Sports Storytelling

A good storyteller can capture and enthrall audiences of all ages and video platforms, and in the sports arena no one does it better than Ross Greenburg.

The 61-year-old producer and executive has reinvented the sports documentary genre during his career of more than three decades by creating informative, drama-filled emotional documentaries and movies for a bevy of networks and virtually all of the major pro sports leagues and organizations.

“I’d argue, and I don’t think I would get much resistance, that Ross Greenburg is really the pre-eminent sports documentary producer active today,” said Showtime Sports executive vice president and general manager Stephen Espinoza, with whom Greenburg has collaborated on several documentary series, including the current series A Season With Florida State Football.

Greenburg redefined the sports documentary category, from his work with HBO creating the reality sports documentary franchise Hard Knocks: Training Camp With The Baltimore Ravens in 2001 to his production partnership with the National Hockey League that has iced documentaries with networks like Showtime and EPIX. His efforts have yielded him an impressive 54 Sports Emmy Awards.

During a 33-year career at HBO — he served as HBO Sports president for 11 of those years — Greenburg helped spark boxing’s resurgence on cable and pay-per-view during the 2000s and cerated the prototype for the all-access reality genre in the network’s 24/7 franchise, created to hype the 2007 Floyd Mayweather- Oscar De La Hoya mega PPV fight.

More recently, under the Ross Greenburg Productions umbrella he has produced a lineup of award-winning sports documentaries for several networks including Against the Tide (Showtime), Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football (EPIX) and Jack Nicklaus: The Making of a Champion (Fox).

And the self-proclaimed sports fan and native New Yorker says the best is yet to come, as Greenburg delves into other forms of content development that will extend his reach into the emerging digital world.

Multichannel News is recognizing Greenburg, one of cable’s most successful storytellers, with its Sports Production Legacy/ Excellence Award. Greenburg recently sat down with MCN programming editor R. Thomas Umstead to discuss his extensive career and t hear his thoughts on how the sports documentary genre continues to evolve. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.

MCN: Growing up, did you see yourself as becoming a prolific sports producer?

Ross Greenburg: It’s funny, I was exposed to sports television in the ’70s through (ABC Sports Monday Night Football announcer) Frank Gifford. His son Kyle and I were best friends who played high school football together at [New York’s] Scarsdale High School. So we were very close and I became close to Frank, who started to engineer a way for the two of us to become runners and production assistants at ABC Sports events. You have to understand, in those days, ABC was what ESPN was for so many years — it was the dominant force — and Frank was kind enough to get us those jobs.

I even played golf once with the great [ABC Sports president] Roone Arledge, who was kind of my hero — he was the ultimate executive producer. He created, in my mind, sports television and what it stands for today. At least he molded the kind of producer I would be in terms of going for the jugular journalistically and also behind the scenes, trying to capture the emotion and the drama of sports and he did it through the mouthpieces of Jim McKay, Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell, among many others.

MCN: At the time, were you a sports fan in general?

RG: Oh, I was a huge sports fan. It was obviously in my bloodstream; my father got season tickets to the New York Jets and early on [Jets quarterback] Joe Willie [Namath] was a childhood hero and I was fortunate enough at age 3 to go to Miami for Super Bowl III. It’s a lasting experience for me. From there, I was a Muhammad Ali watcher; I was a Jim Brown fan, a Willie Mays fan. I was kind of drawn to the Olympics because of the drama and the way Roone produced it. So yes, I was a heartfelt sports fan.

And even though Mom probably wanted me to become a lawyer and go to law school, I’ll never forget my junior year at Brown — I kind of dropped the news on her that I wouldn’t be taking the LSATs and instead would be going to try to become a production assistant. At the time I thought it would be with ABC, but that didn’t work out, so I found this little cable network that only had about 90 employees and 500,000 subs — HBO — and I grew up from there.

MCN: To say the least. Entering HBO as a producer, how did you want to define that network as a producer of sports programming?

RG: It was obvious that HBO was not going to start carrying NFL football or NBA games … that was just too expensive. Even the rights back then comparatively were just too expensive for HBO. So early on I looked at the menu of what ABC Sports started to do with Howard Cosell’s magazine shows and I was very exposed to and kind of enlightened by Bud Greenspan’s work with the Olympics and Steve Sabol’s work at NFL Films.

So when I got there, NFL Films and HBO had already created Inside the NFL. Then, I started thinking to myself, what about this documentary world? Is there some way to take storytelling and place it within HBO and do it outstandingly well and break through that way? I mean I was still a producer and wasn’t running the department at that point, but I was having an impact. I started to generate ideas for documentaries and series and magazine shows. Those were the first Petri dishes for what became Real Sports and the documentary swing that we ran through from 1990 through when I left in 2011, when we produced some 80 projects. And then, of course, 24/7 evolved.

MCN: How has the sports production business changed from when you started to now?

RG: It’s funny — I think, at its core, a great story can generate great interest from viewers younger than the millennials all the way through 80-year-olds. Sports television has changed remarkably in terms of the distribution mechanism, the way everything is shot, technology has blossomed, you’re able to shoot [with] GoPros and put microphones in places that you wouldn’t have ever been able to back when I started in 1978. But at its core, storytelling is still the king.

MCN: You’ve never shied away from controversial topics or subjects. Has there been any project in particular where you took a more cautious approach because of the nature of the topic?

RG: Well, I’m doing a documentary right now on [former NFL player] Lawrence Phillips, which is very difficult because it’s a difficult story. He represents everything that goes wrong with a professional athlete in many ways. From his collegiate days on, he never could escape the demons of his tortured past growing up in the Los Angeles area, never really having a family. A difficult story to tell, but one thing I have always tried to do is just go for the truth. If you go for the truth, some people may not like it, but at least you know you’ve been true to the story and that you’ve told it the best you can. And that’s really, at the core, what a good journalist does … look at both sides, state both sides of a story and then attack it and let other people judge how they view it. That’s being lost on America nowadays across the board. But hopefully anything that I’m putting on the screen will never let that get lost.

MCN: How was the transition for you from sports producer to becoming head of HBO Sports, which you ran for more than a decade?

RG: From a production standpoint, it didn’t change that much, because I still had the greats like Rick Bernstein, Dave Harmon and others who picked up the ball in production and just ran with it. And I think I had created a vision and an understanding of what the department was looking for in terms of quality and digging [into] its stories and going after journalistic pieces on Real Sports or going after journalistic, hard-hitting commentary on a boxing event. So at its core that vision never changed.

Obviously I had to adapt to running an entire 90-person department and overseeing the wonderful world of boxing. I was donning the hat of being the one to decide whether a boxing event was going to make its way on television. Obviously I didn’t really enjoy that very much as it wound down in 2011 … I got bitten by the sharks in the water at the end and was glad to be rid of that, honestly. But I still enjoyed coming up with documentary ideas, creating 24/7 as a genre, and really seeing Real Sports evolve into the kind of dynamic magazine show that it did. All of that was really heartwarming and I enjoyed the hell out of running the department for 11 years. So it was tough saying goodbye.

And then I had a whole other adjustment. All of a sudden, I was thrust out into the world and had to create Ross Greenburg Productions and start calling on a lot of companies that were my competitors and that was an adjustment, a big adjustment. But I’m proud of the way I engineered that. And it’s been a really enjoyable six years to be able to go back to my producing roots and just deliver the product.

MCN: You mentioned the boxing sharks at HBO bit you right before your departure. Was there any particular fight, promoter or anything that really pushed you over the edge?

RG: Well, I think that my tussles with [boxing promoter] Bob Arum got to the point of ridiculousness. It was very hard for me engineering the inner workings of HBO to try to survive that, then dealing with [boxing champion] Manny Pacquiao fleeing to Showtime and then coming back. I just started to lose my grip on it.

MCN: You’re currently working for a number of other networks including Showtime, EPIX and Fox. Where do you see yourself continuing to expand?

RG: I have had situations where the [United States Golf Association] called me and the product ended up on Golf Channel and then obviously onto Fox when the USGA migrated to Fox Sports. EPIX and Showtime have been wonderful partners. From the day I left [HBO], Showtime took me under their wings with Matt Blank and Steven Espinoza and have afforded me the opportunity to do two or three documentaries and counting. I have two or three more. So that has been a wonderful experience.

NBC was really gracious when I left; they afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of documentaries and some programming with my old friend Bob Costas and others.

Now I’m just looking to kind of continue with those clients, but also growing. I’m doing some non-sports product now but really still concentrating in the sports world. The NHL also has given me great opportunities to do these series that we’re doing, and now I’ll be serving as executive producer for a documentary on the 100 years of NHL hockey — the centennial celebration is in full swing.

MCN: Is there a documentary that you’re dying to do, any subject that you’re dying to work on?

RG: Well there is. I looked at what we did with Miracle and I know that there is a film to be done on the women’s soccer team — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, you know, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain, those five core women changed the perception of women’s sports and women in society today. They were the Title IX babies that grew up on the U.S. soccer team and in 1999 had the bold statement that we’re gonna pack every stadium for the World Cup and lo and behold, they did.

And then, in front of millions around the world, they beat China to win that World Cup and made a statement that, “We have arrived as a team and for the first time, we’re taken seriously as athletes.”

That was a movement, that wasn’t just a sports event. And it came at a time of Mia Hamm breaking through and doing Nike commercials with [Michael] Jordan, so it’s such a rich, important story. And they battled adversity because the U.S. Soccer Federation then and even now continues to battle with that team over equal pay.

MCN: Has the expansion of digital formats created a new market for sports documentary producers?

RG: Yes. I think the digital world has opened up a wonderful array of opportunities for producers. I have been talking to [Turner Broadcasting System-owned digital media company] Bleacher Report and would love to work with them. It’s exciting to see that there are so many places you can go now to tell your little stories and they don’t have to be half-hour or hour longforms. They can be five or six minutes — get the point across, make a few dollars, but more importantly, touch people. There are a lot of beautiful stories out there, you know? So I think this new digital distribution system is really going to electrify our world.