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Golden Age Is Now For Sports Documentaries

8/12/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Back in the day, when ABC owned the Olympics and was airing the weekly Wide World of Sports, the network’s up-close-and-personal storytelling was the closest most viewers ever got to a well-made sports documentary.

While NBC’s Olympics coverage continues the approach, the profiles are short with little depth due to network time restraints.

Today, sports documentaries have found an entrenched home on cable with interesting subject matter and sky’s-the-limit sensationalism. Even niche networks are delving into the sports documentary arena.

HBO Sports is at the top of the genre with riveting docs like Mantle, Ali-Frazier — One Nation Divisible and Dare to Compete — The Struggles of Women in Sports. Home Box Office’s first sports doc was the baseball retrospective When It Was Game, which premiered in July 1991.

FOX IN THE POOL

Fox Sports Net has made a vibrant splash into the sports documentary pool with its Beyond the Glory series, which takes a hard look — warts and all — at subjects like the crash-and-burn career of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, the tragedy of former National Basketball Association player Manute Bol and the downfall of former Cy Young Award winner and convicted felon Denny McClain.

Beyond the Glory premiered January 2000 with a profile of Deion Sanders. By the end of 2005, the series will have touched on over 90 subjects, including a look at the designated hitter, set for Sept. 28.

ESPN has made its presence known with SportsCentury, which debuted January 1999 with its “50 Greatest Athletes,” and the Outside the Lines forum show, which bowed May 1990 with a detailed look at a successful lawsuit by two charter airline attendants against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball teams for sexual harassment.

Tennis Channel also has two documentary series. No Strings spends the day with a tennis great like Pete Sampras, while Net Films takes a look at a past stars like Pancho Gonzales.

Why so many sports documentaries and why now? According to acclaimed documentary film maker Ken Burns, the timing is right.

BEYOND THE CLICHÉ

“Sports documentaries are honest and willing to see beyond the cliché of sports,” he says, adding, sports “are a swamp of imitations avoiding complicated emotions.”

The films “are important because the journalism of the moment doesn’t always give the largest view of sports,” adds Burns, creator of Baseball and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson for PBS.

So why do sports documentaries and the small screen work so well together?

HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg says excellent sports documentaries develop a brand and a buzz.

“Once we pick the right project and throw ourselves in the production, we are confident we can produce something the viewer will either cry or laugh with us,” he says. “And that’s something TV should be all about.”

Greenburg adds, “That’s what buzz is all about. It generates water-cooler comment and they become evergreens for years and years and then they have a foothold at the network.”

Beyond the Glory is the perfect example of sports documentaries with a hit-you-between-the-eyes-and-keep-you-watching style.

“We involve the athlete,” says George Greenberg, executive vice president of programming and production at FSN.

“It is first person, no holds barred. They sit down for a couple of hours and nothing is out of bounds. If the athlete doesn’t want to answer a question, we stop the interview,” he says. “Our documentaries are told from the heart and from the athletes’ perspective. We get the good and the bad.”

Greenberg has a two-documentary wish list he hopes to develop. “We’d love to do Beyond the Glory on Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Martin,” he says. “When people watch [documentaries] on one of those two bigger-than-life personalities, you get to hear from them in a completely different perspective.”

While viewers may remember ABC’s up-close-and-personal style and syndication’s Greatest Sports Legends, which ran from 1973 to 1993, longer-form sports documentaries never evolved into a broadcast television fixture .

“The networks were never really into it,” says HBO’s Greenburg. “They never felt there was an appetite from Madison Avenue and sponsorships and they probably don’t think it pulls in big enough ratings.”

He adds, “We’ll do cumulative ratings of 1.5 ratings and a 13% share and it will run over and over. That’s a successful program that leaves viewers walking away crying and laughing and bonding with the program. Then it’s available on demand and then on DVD. [The networks] are not in our business. This is our business model, our brand.”

The more solid sports documentaries you make, the more you create the brand and the buzz, but the subject must be strong, Greenburg says.

“We are very much devoted to journalism whether it’s investigated or enterprise for the sports viewer,” says David Berson, vice president of program, planning and promotion at ESPN. “We’ve been doing Outside the Lines for many years now and we get tremendous feedback from letters and e-mails.”

While it’s relatively easy to do a sports documentary on a long-deceased athlete, the contemporary documentaries can be more challenging because the topic is ever changing.

Dan Klores, who created Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story for USA Network, had just completed a baseball documentary, Viva Baseball, on the struggles of Latino players. Three days later the Rafael Palmeiro bombshell hit: Palmeiro, a potential Hall of Famer with the rare combination of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, received a suspension after testing positive for steroids under Major League Baseball’s new testing plan.

“I had Palmeiro leading to my conclusion point,” recalls Klores, head of Dan Klores Communications. Viva Baseball bows Sept. 23 on Spike TV. “He was only in it for six to eight seconds and the voiceover is on his 3,000th hit, which led to Roberto Clemente and his 3,000th hit. It took me 10 minutes to fix it by taking him out, but I can’t believe he was so stupid.”

COMPLICATED STORIES

Burns sees a clear reason why sports documentaries are clinging to the bosom of cable and not the networks.

“They left sports documentaries to those of us who are more willing to tell complicated stories about race and heroes,” he says. “Baseball, for instance, imitates American life with gambling, drugs and steroids, but if all you do is air dirty laundry, then you’re nothing more than a National Inquirer scandal sheet. There’s the good and bad. There’s the heroics of Cal Ripken Jr. and then there’s Jason Giambi.”

Tennis Channel loves the genre and is confident it will pay off, chairman and CEO Ken Solomon says. “If you do them well, people develop a taste for it and then you have a hit on your hands,” he says. “Then they become a franchise and create an appetite only we will be able to satisfy. It’s not about ratings in the beginning, but it’s about the ratings” in the future.”