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The Last Dance And The Rise of the Sports Documentary

With live sports struggling to resume, fans are starved of ways to connect with their favourite teams and stars. The success of sports documentary, The Last Dance, proves that brands, leagues and colleges are sitting on a goldmine of historic content. Meanwhile, audiences are simply sitting on their couches, waiting for something new to be served up by their favorite subscription platforms. This provides content owners with a golden opportunity to raid their archives and pull together new material for a waiting audience.


As the US draft season provides what little sporting action there is, the ‘archive’ has come into its own as a way for fans to follow their teams, and for brands to build engagement and protect revenue. But the success of the ESPN/Netflix documentary, The Last Dance, has also shone a spotlight on archive content as a storytelling medium.

Major league teams such as the Chicago Bulls are sitting on decades of game and behind-the-scenes footage, some of which hasn’t been seen since match day. Peppered with unseen glimpses of off-guard moments, confrontations and celebrations, the archive is a vast and untapped resource. It offers the perfect opportunity for teams, leagues and colleges to reinforce their brand and champion their players by re-telling their greatest stories.

Especially poignant now the tracks and fields are silent, the sports documentary is the ideal vehicle to explore success, build legends, and unite fans in a closer and more profitable relationship. Engaged socially, and eager to explore backstories and past glories, it’s exactly the content that switched on superfans are looking for.

New age of the sports documentary

The sports documentary isn’t a new format, of course. From 1977’s A Sunday in Hell, through When We Were Kings (1996) to 2006’s Deep Water, filmmakers have long explored the political and personal stories behind sport. While some films have gained cult status, others have gained major recognition and success. Just last year, Free Solo - documenting Alex Honnold’s lone, equipment-free attempt to scale Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan - bagged an Oscar.

The rise of subscription TV services has helped widen the audience for sports documentaries and stimulate investment in new films. Changes in consumer viewing habits have also contributed, in particular the desire for more episodic content, rather than single, feature-length pieces. This was actually a key factor that attracted Jordan to the idea of The Last Dance. A single, 80-minute documentary couldn’t have done justice to the epic scale of his story. However, by splicing it up into a number of mini narratives, it not only got the star on-board, but delivered the story in a format that audiences love too.


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The Last Dance is far from the only example of how series content works well. Last year, ESPN celebrated its three-decade history with 30 for 30, a series of documentary films focusing on key sporting events and seasons. Explaining the format’s appeal, executive producer Libby Geist said: “The best films of this kind bring context. People seem to think they know the stories, but a film-maker can step back and show reasons why and how."

Made in America

This is especially evident in modern classics like OJ: Made in America. Telling the OJ Simpson story from his upbringing to his downfall, its masterful use of archive footage contrasts his prodigious talent with the later events that led to his imprisonment. In particular, incredible rushes and touchdowns from the USC Trojan and Buffalo Bills archives reinforce Simpson as a uniquely gifted player - a revelation to those who only know him from the courtroom.

In The Last Dance, archive shots become the central vehicle through which filmmakers tell the story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s dominance of the NBA. Exclusive behind the scenes footage of the entire 97-98 season is interspersed with older material. In fact, around 500 hours of archive content was uncovered – some of which had even been shot by high school seniors at the time – providing a treasure trove of content that had not been seen for 20 years.

Contemporary interviews drive the narrative, while the filmmakers raid archives from the Bulls and the University of North Carolina to remind us of the audacious talent and monumental work ethic of Michael Jordan himself.

While the above examples follow two of the biggest sporting stars of the last few decades, the opportunities are there for teams and organisations of all shapes and sizes. In fact, some have already hopped on the bandwagon. For example, a series tentatively titled, “The Man in the Arena”, scheduled for 2021, will be a nine-part ESPN documentary on former Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. It will supposedly address the Spygate and Deflategate scandals, and potentially include an interview with Patriots coach, Bill Belichick.

Amplifying the Draft

A key lesson learned from The Last Dance is how the use of archive content mixed with more recent footage can be an effective storytelling vehicle. This provides a great opportunity for universities across the US to generate a compelling media story around annual events, such as the draft. The selection of athletes by major teams generates a lot of press attention, and highlighting their past stars, alongside the stars of tomorrow, is a powerful way to raise the profile of the college’s sporting program.

Where athletes go on to greater success, the college archive only increases in value. The ability to retrieve and monetise footage can open up new revenue streams and further build the brand. In the example of Major League Baseball pitcher Casey Mize, achieving first pick in the 2018 draft was not only a high-profile success for Auburn Tigers, but a chance for Auburn University to amplify the moment with archive footage.

“Casey was the first baseball player in program history to be taken with the number one overall pick,” explains Auburn’s Director of Multimedia and Video Services, Weston Carter. “That kind of attention drives a huge spike in requests from news and media partners - and you need to be in a place to deliver the goods.”

Fortunately, Auburn was already well set up to service the heightened interest in Mize and other athletes arising from the draft. Having trialed the Imagen platform the previous year, Carter had expanded the college’s video library to include all its sporting disciplines. “We were perfectly ready to handle the demand,” he says. “We could give partners quick access to our self-service portal and capitalize on the momentum of the draft, without getting tied up in serving individual requests.”


How to tackle high-quality athletics content distribution with ease

Find out how Auburn Athletics provides rapid access to latest action and archive content - for local news, national broadcasters, student access and more.


Don’t flub the shot

Auburn’s partnership with Imagen gives it a secure archive, presented to trusted news and media outlets through a self-service cloud portal. Searchability based on advanced metadata, and features such as automated transcription, ensure that internal teams and external partners can find and retrieve specific plays in moments. Architected in the cloud, Imagen’s unbelievably fast distribution means that Auburn’s clips - and even full games - can be securely and speedily distributed worldwide.

Having such a system in place lets universities, teams and leagues capitalise on opportunities to promote themselves and monetise archive content. Come the draft, ready-to-go content reinforces athletes’ stature and shines a positive light on colleges’ athletic and sports programs. And when it comes to documentaries, archive footage makes sure that colleges and minor league teams make the cut alongside the major players, getting to raise the trophy with athletes whose careers they helped shape.

Having a digitised, organised archive of prospects before they were stars is one of the core ways in which colleges can showcase their talent and success. For teams and leagues, it’s a major resource to be explored and enjoyed by a ready-made audience of superfans. Getting out of the blocks fast ensures maximum exposure from current events, while in-depth searchability helps locate the clip for every request, as freshmen grow from rookies to sporting greats.

In sport, history may be written by the victors, but it’s re-told by the teams with a searchable video archive.

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