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Prime-Time TV: How Behind-the-Scenes Sports Documentaries Grew to Be Our Obsession

As with any form of televised entertainment, it’s often what goes undetected and unseen that attracts the most attention from fans. And from this, the sports documentary was born. And while as a format it’s not a new phenomena, the last few years have seen a notable uptick in their number, particularly on big-budget streaming and on-demand platforms such as Netflix, NowTV and Amazon Prime.

Whether contemporaneously following a club or team through the highs and lows of a season, fly-on-the-wall style (All or Nothing, Drive to Survive, Last Chance U, to name a few) or looking back at legendary or controversial sporting moments and the highs and lows (The Last Dance, Icarus, Senna), these programs almost always prove a success.

Their effect can range from fortifying a disillusioned fan base - arguably Arsenal’s edition of All Or Nothing achieved just this - to growing the sport in previously smaller markets, such as Drive to Survive, Netflix’s Formula One documentary which has significantly increased the sport’s global reach in places such as the USA.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die (2018-2020) did all the above, focusing on historic football club Sunderland AFC. It picked up their progress the season after their relegation from the Premier League to the Championship in 2017. Their agreeing to extensive access by camera crews came with the hope the publicity would attract new investors and allow the club to better challenge for promotion. The series gave the audience an insight into how the club was rooted in the community, portraying their followers as more than just fanatics, and lacked the santised feel many behind-the-scenes shows have been criticised for.

Often documentaries take time to delve into the personal lives of athletes, allowing them to shine within a team setting or as an individual. Senna, the 2010 film about the legendary Formula One driver’s life and death, strays away from ‘talking head’ interviews and uses family footage overlaid with audio from those who knew him best to create a personal picture of a mythical man; The Last Dance delves into the personal stories of the team’s linchpins, analysing their decisions, choices and the opinions of their teammates.

The latter in particular was a brilliant show which took off at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with everyone at home looking to pass the time with something to watch. It capitalised upon changing viewer and consumer habits, a trend which has not changed as everyday life has returned to ‘normal’. Events are laid out in a coherent and organised way, which allows the viewer to take a step back and explore one theme throughout an episode while the narrative moves forwards and backwards in time.

As a staple of our screens unlikely to fade away any time soon, audiences will continue to seek out content that feels as fresh and unfiltered as possible, and clubs and organisations will look to increase their exposure in an increasingly crowded market. Will the pressure of competition create more diamonds-in-the-rough? Where will the next The Last Dance come from? We shall have to wait and see.

Illustration: Calum Mayor

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