Credit: Vibrant Media Productions

Sports Documentaries: why do we love them?

By Claire Thomson

The popularity of sporting documentaries in the past ten years has provided insight into the “normal” person behind the athlete exterior.

Over the past decade, sports documentaries have been on the rise, but following the Covid-19 pandemic, this increase intensified as live sports struggled and fans were starved of ways to connect with their favourite teams and stars. Sports lends itself to great storytelling in a unique way through nail-biting close calls, internal politics, and high-stakes results. Sports are an area where we can witness people achieve (and lose) incredible things. It’s awe-inspiring and gripping. The success of the sports documentary The Last Dance, in particular, proved that brands, leagues, colleges, and athletes are sitting on a goldmine of historic content, ready and waiting to be turned into a sports documentary for the eager audience.

The rise of subscription TV services has helped to widen the audience for sports documentaries and stimulate investments as content owners raid the archives to pull together new material. Changes in consumer viewing habits have also contributed to this increase in popularity, especially the desire for more episodic content, rather than single, feature-length pieces. In many cases recently, this has been a key factor that has attracted teams and athletes to the idea of producing a piece of multimedia about their history, successes and career. With the depth, journey, and emotion surrounding sport, often 90-minute documentaries can never do a story, particularly one of epic scale, justice. A single, feature-length piece struggles to depict the challenges faced by athletes: the suffering, the exhaustion, the achievements, the relationships and the relief. However, dividing it up into a number of narratives offers viewers a wider context than what is available from live sports and on social media. The audience can delve into the drama and witness the highs and lows of professional sport from the behind-the-scenes process. The inner feelings of sports icons and spotlight grassroots sports are often missed out on mainstream coverage when it is a primary focus of a sports documentary. 

Additionally, sport documentaries are solving the demographic problem facing professional broadcasted sport in recent years. Professional sports attract the biggest television audiences, however, many major sports leagues are noticing a decline in interest from the younger population. Among older fans, the support remains strong. Yet, changing trends and fashions have meant that young people are more interested in alternatives to sports, such as esports and technology. These documentaries have been a way for leagues and teams to reach these demographics that have been deemed as “un-interested” in sport by creating a mechanism for fans to connect with the personalities in the sport and boosting interest in watching live matches and events. 

Formula 1, for example, is a technical sport and hard to communicate the hard work, passion, energy and ingenuity that goes into winning a race. To an outsider, it just seems like fast cars driving round in circles for 90 minutes. Yet, the Drive to Survive series managed to bring a new lease of life to motorsports by focusing on the people rather than the cars on the track, helping audiences to see the superhuman effort involved in F1. When professional sport is such a niche world that the majority of the population cannot directly relate to, it is easier for audiences to engage when there is a “normal” person with a story behind the tough, often unbreakable, athlete exterior. 

Today’s climate of activism has seen sport elevated to a new dimension as many sports personalities have embodied a new, inclusive age of sports and used their platforms to become social and cultural icons, petitioning for equality and a changed world. Social injustice has always been a major issue within sports and audiences’ contempt for discrimination has fuelled an appetite for rooting for the underdog – seeing individuals succeed when the odds are stacked against them. The increased profiles of female sports icons, especially, are paving the way for new generations to tackle the industry’s issues with discrimination, segregation, and abuse. For example, Netflix’s Naomi Osaka docuseries followed Naomi Osaka as she explored her cultural roots and navigated her multifaceted identity as a tennis champion and rising leader. Furthermore, the recent Prime Video documentary Lioness: The Nicola Adams Story profiled the double Olympic gold medallist, depicting her experiences of sexism, racism, and homophobia over the course of her career. 

The booming genre of sports documentaries appears to be set to continue for some time. There is still space for further untapped sports, in-depth immersions into the lives of rising cultural icons and fresh behind-the-scenes content, hopefully allowing for sports documentaries to continue to rise in prominence. 


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments