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22 September 2023

Sport is just fodder for documentaries now

High-stakes “sportertainment” puts casual streamers and shareholders above fans and tradition.

By Emma John

For four decades, my sister has been a footballing refusenik. She finds most sports off-putting, but Britain’s traditional big three – football, rugby and cricket – have always elicited an instant and exaggerated groan of boredom. It is some surprise to hear, therefore, that she has recently binge-watched the first series of Welcome to Wrexham and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apparently, she doesn’t mind watching football if, in her words, they don’t show very much of it at all.

“You only have to watch little clips of the actual games,” she says, “and the slow-motion technology is amazing. I don’t know how they do it, but the effects are better than a Hollywood movie.” This is the sort of commentary that will delight both Disney, which made the documentary series, and, presumably, Wrexham FC’s celebrity owners. Because if my sister has anything at all in common with the multimillionaire A-listers Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, it’s the amount of footballing knowledge that the three of them shared before encountering the north Wales club.

The second series of Welcome to Wrexham began streaming earlier this month, joining the ever-expanding roster of sporting documentary series created specifically for the non-fan. My sister, enchanted by the gentle comedy of Ted Lasso, found the story of a real-life non-league underdog an easy next step. She’s not about to transition to a full game any time soon because that’s around 85 minutes more action than she’s prepared to sit through. But I wouldn’t bet against her adding the upcoming David Beckham documentary to her Netflix list.

The four-part Beckham series, which will be released at the start of October, is described by the streaming service as “a chronicle of late-modern sports and celebrity culture”, which feels a bit Spider-Man-pointing-at-Spider-Man. These documentaries aren’t just narratives from contemporary sport, they’re its dominant current manifestation, and, seemingly, its direction of travel – the hungry outworking of an industry determined that no one should escape its commercial clutches. Like Beckham? Then let us tell you about a little club he owns, Inter Miami! You’ll love Apple TV’s six-part documentary about its new star player, a 36-year-old dynamo called Lionel Messi…

We have Drive to Survive to thank for the current glut of behind-the-scenes scenes and, five seasons in, the Formula One series remains the most successful example of the genre. Space-race technical complexity and tax-free Monaco lifestyles mean that F1 exists at a planetary remove from the average person. Its star athletes are hidden behind darkened visors, their off-track appearances measured out in minutes by luxury goods sponsors. A show that followed them, and the sport’s bitchy rivalries, into the paddock and between the race weekends was a genius idea, as proven by a 10 per cent increase in F1 viewership in the US.

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[See also: The cruelty of cricket]

The very nature of the sport lends it to a weekly, high-stakes treatment. An episode entitled “Man on Fire” does, indeed, deliver a man on fire: Romain Grosjean, wedged for thirty harrowing seconds in the cockpit of a car that has split asunder and is engulfed in flames. His miraculous escape and subsequent recovery means the producers can linger on the footage of a conflagration from which the race day’s live feed had to avert its respectful gaze.

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Not all sports work as well. Break Point (tennis) briefly flared when its lens was fixed on Nick Kyrgios, a man ready-made for reality TV; Ons Jabeur’s optimism for her first Wimbledon final made for a poignant watch, given what was coming not just that year, but the one after, too. But the rest merely confirmed what a tough trudge the tennis tour can be for its participants.

But that’s not putting anyone off the format. Break Point is already commissioned for a second series, as is Full Swing (golf), Tour de France: Unchained and Quarterback, while next year docuseries on La Liga, sprinting and rugby union’s Six Nations will air. And that’s just on Netflix. It’s hard to avoid the vertiginous, Escher-like sensation that sporting events are now primarily staged to provide content for documentaries.

And maybe that’s not as foolish as it sounds. Those who run sport make no disguise of the reality that they are, to quote Succession’s Kendall Roy, harvesting eyeballs. Cricket’s irreversible transformation into a fully franchised universe is based on this very principle. The Indian Premier League, the mould that now shapes the global game, was constructed as a six-week, prime-time narrative that would offer its followers nightly soap-opera storylines, the ultimate sporting telenovela. 

And while sport and entertainment have always shared a cosy Venn diagram, the overlap has never felt quite as significant as it does today. The sentiments that governed sport in the 20th century – patriotism, local loyalties, the earnest pursuit of human endeavour – are far less resonant in a content-saturated world where even the athletes pick and choose their tournaments, their seasons, their retirements and their un-retirements. Contests no longer require historical context or long-established tradition. After all, there’ll be another along in a thumb scroll.

Unchecked, the outcome is an over-colourised world of sportertainment. A place where team identities are increasingly shallow and meaningless, sold off like family silver in the service of shareholder value, and fans in the stands are less important than the abstract net worth of casual streamers and social-media brand followings. 

Still, maybe that’s not the dystopian future it sounds. Professional sport has only existed for a century or so, and has had plenty of unpalatable iterations during that time: colour bars, class divisions, subcultures of violence. Maybe we can all afford to take sport a little less seriously, just like my sister.

[See also: A fan’s loyalty is unwavering – unlike the players they support]

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