Netflix's wild ride in the world of sports documentaries

Netflix's wild ride in the world of sports documentaries

Live-action thrills, chills and drama: changing the streaming game by giving fans the inside track on some of their favourite sports

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Late in the 2020 Formula One season, driver Romain Grosjean lost control of his car in the Bahrain Grand Prix and smashed into a barricade. The vehicle split in half, and its fuel turned into a roaring fireball.

It was a crisis moment for track safety officials, but for the Netflix camera crew filming the hit show Drive to Survive, it was a moment of uncertainty.

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“When you’re in the paddock when there’s a bad accident, everybody knows it’s a bad one instinctively,” says Paul Martin, one of the co-founders of Box to Box Films, creators of Drive to Survive. “What happens is, just, everybody goes silent, like everybody in the paddock. That’s how you know it’s a bad one.”

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There was, Martin says in an interview, immediate concern for Grosjean, who had sat in front of the Netflix cameras and had come to know the producers.

There was also the question of the proper response of documentarians when something has gone horribly wrong.

“Where do we point our camera? Should we even be pointing our camera?,” Martin says. “It was the longest, you know, however many seconds he was in that car. It felt like hours.”

It was 28 seconds.

Grosjean, remarkably, did walk away from the wreckage.

“There was something cinematic about just watching him emerge from the flames,” Martin says. “It was an incredible moment. And I think it was a real turning point for the show.”

The escape-from-certain-death formed quite a climax to Season 3 of Drive to Survive, which had dropped on the streaming service right in the middle of the COVID pandemic, when live sports had been severely disrupted. A series that had filled idle TV hours for many who had never watched Formula One before suddenly had a season with a denouement that could never have been scripted.

“That is probably when the show really went to another level, I think,” Martin says.

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It has been some kind of ride for Netflix and sports documentaries in the months and years since.

Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur in Break Point.
Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur in Break Point. Photo by Netflix © 2023

Box to Box has produced behind-the-scenes shows on the PGA Tour (Full Swing), professional tennis (Break Point) and, most recently, the Tour de France. Readers will notice some similarities there: sports that have an audience, but not with the profile of the major professional leagues in North America and Europe. Everyone is looking for their own Drive to Survive, in other words, which has been credited with helping fuel a sharp rise in interest in Formula One globally, but particularly in North America, where it was something of a curiosity pre-pandemic.

Gabe Spitzer, vice-president, Non-fiction Sports at Netflix, says the success of Drive to Survive led to outreach from other leagues. “I think it just opened the eyes of, like, what could a partnership look like if we opened up access and showed the true authenticity of behind the scenes.”

The key to the thing, both Martin and Spitzer say, is that the producers have creative control over the process. The leagues don’t get a veto over content that might be unflattering to an athlete or coach.

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“I think we just sort of have to be ruthless,” Spitzer says, explaining that so many of these types of shows are produced now that viewers can tell when one is overly gauzy. Which is why a season of Drive to Survive will invariably include fights both subtle and not subtle at all. It’s those uncomfortable moments that give it a jolt of realism.

With cameras on scene all season, thousands of hours of film are generated. So do the producers take all that and shape it into a narrative, or do they start off with an eye toward certain arcs?

A bit of both, Martin says. The Box to Box team tries to map out potential storylines — Who’s under pressure? What driver or manager might lose his job? — but will inevitably have to tack on the fly. The biggest example of this came not in the F1 show but in Full Swing, which started out following several PGA Tour stars and then found out some of them were bolting to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league. For a series that had been given inside-the-Tour access to help promote the PGA Tour, this was tricky.

“When we started that show, there were some rumours about this kind of (rebel) league,” Martin says. “But people would say, ‘Look, this kind of disruption, people talk about it every five or six years but it’s not going to come to much.’ And then suddenly we’re waking up every morning and it’s like, ‘Oh, Dustin’s gone. Oh, shit, Brooks is going to go.’”

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Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka were two of the players that had allowed cameras into their homes.

brooks koepka full swing lpga liv golf
Golfer Brooks Koepka, with putting coach Jeff Pierce, in Full Swing. Photo by Netflix © 2023

Full Swing ended up providing a better explanation for the LIV defections than was ever provided at tightly controlled press conferences — more money, less golf, Johnson said plainly — while also showing that defectors, in their beautiful homes, were already plenty wealthy to begin with.

“These were characters that we had chosen to follow,” Martin says. “LIV was part of their story and we had to see it through.”

The PGA Tour, he says, understood why the rebels couldn’t just be disappeared from the show once they had left.

In June, with a second season of filming underway, Netflix cameras were present when the shock peace deal was announced between the PGA Tour and the Saudis who started LIV.

“Everyone’s friends now, so it’s fine,” Martin says with a smile.

The formula has been highly successful. Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but the sports docs routinely make it into their top-10 lists. Drive to Survive is a top-10 show in 47 countries, up there with the service’s big hits like Stranger Things and Bridgerton. Other services, leagues and teams have got into the sports-doc game, most notably the Hollywood actors who bought a soccer team in Wales in part because one of them had watched the Netflix treatment of Sunderland, a then-struggling club in northern England.

Asked if this kind of interest in sports programming means Netflix might join Amazon and Apple in pursuing live sports rights, Spitzer is noncommittal.

“I think we’re seeing the value of the shoulder programming and we can do a lot of it for the for the same price as one live rights deal,” he says. “That’s our focus right now.”

But, as the documentary producers know well, things can change in a hurry.

“You know, you think you’ve got a handle on these worlds,” Martin says. “And then something comes along that could just throw it all up in the air.”

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