The first of several highly anticipated sports docuseries scheduled to air in 2023 premiered earlier this month as Netflix released the first five episodes of Break Point, a behind-the-scenes (BTS) documentary its creators hope will help tennis reach new fans and grow its audience.
Sound familiar? That’s probably because it is.
Initially somewhat of a pioneering concept, fly-on-the-wall documentaries have become an almost-essential marketing tool in sport. While there have been several series dedicated to following individual teams, recent years have seen an avalanche of governing bodies commit to documentaries in an effort to emulate the success of Formula One’s Drive to Survive, which has established something of an industry benchmark for using non-live content to generate engagement.
For the latest instalment of its monthly series of reviews, SportsPro offers its verdict on Break Point after sitting down to watch the first half of the show’s debut season.
The series has been produced by Box to Box Films, which has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the clamour for sports documentaries. After showcasing its credentials through Drive to Survive, the production company has since been enlisted to make shows for golf’s PGA Tour and major championships, as well as cycling’s Tour de France.
Who are the stars of the show?
Perhaps not who you would expect. Rather than focus on tennis’ golden generation, screentime is reserved for the breakout stars in the game.
The opening episode profiles arguably the most high-profile men’s player to feature in the show in Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, while the likes of Ons Jabeur, Matteo Berrettini, Paula Badosa, Casper Ruud, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Aryana Sabalenka and Taylor Fritz also feature heavily. There’s additional insight from former champions like Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova.
While the show does lack a little for not having some of the bigger names involved, that’s kind of the point. If tennis is to thrive after the players that have dominated the sport for the last 20 years retire, then now is the time for it to do a better job of promoting those vying to step into their shoes. The players that feature may not end up winning as many Grand Slams as their predecessors but another way of drumming up interest is by shining a light on who they are off the court, which Break Point certainly does.
You could also question whether the likes of Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal et al would have the appetite to participate even if asked. There’s still time for them to feature in potential future seasons – Netflix didn’t get permission to shoot Ferrari and Mercedes for the first season of Drive to Survive – but several of the sport’s legends are already the subject of their own documentaries, so it’s difficult to see what value there would be for them.
What was the marketing like around it?
Tennis hasn’t been the only sport guilty of this, but the press release announcing Break Point made direct reference to Drive to Survive, stating that the series would be created ‘in the same spirit’.
While there is value in providing a reference point, the problem with likening Break Point to Drive to Survive is that people are already making direct and possibly unhelpful comparisons between the two. And where the Formula One documentary has succeeded has been in its ability to create storylines that people care about irrespective of whether they like motorsport.
According to the Motorsport Broadcasting website, the first week of the series’ fourth season ranked among Netflix’s top ten most-watched shows in key markets like the UK, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Germany and Italy. That is no small feat when considering the wider entertainment offering on the platform.
Being on Netflix, Break Point isn’t only competing with other sports content, but also true crime documentaries, movies, original series, and plenty more. And if the aim of Break Point is to reach beyond the traditional tennis fanbase, then you need to give them a reason to watch over and above everything else in Netflix’s content library.
With that in mind, it does feel like Break Point would have benefitted from a more comprehensive marketing drive in the run-up to its release.
An identical social media post was duplicated across the accounts of the main stakeholders involved and a smattering of journalists tweeted their takes in the run-up to the release date having been given early access. But the show lacked the viral teaser clips that can create chatter and anticipation elsewhere. In fact, the most memorable scene centres not around any of the up-and-coming players, but rather Nadal psyching out Ruud with his warm-up in the tunnel ahead of their meeting in last year’s French Open final.
My favorite scene from Netflix’s new series “Break Point” has to be Rafael Nadal winning the French Open before they even take the court.pic.twitter.com/NB7WHecFTw— Joe Pompliano (@JoePompliano) January 15, 2023
Does the format work?
The five 50-minute episodes feature a blend of on-court action, interviews and candid conversations between players and their team, family or friends. You get glimpses into locker rooms, hotel suites, restaurants and even family homes. Each instalment focuses on a different competitor, with some episodes shoehorning in the stories of two or three individuals.
For that reason it can feel like there is insufficient time to truly become invested in the players. Barring Kyrgios’ run to the 2022 Australian Open doubles final, viewers are only given a fleeting taste of the players in action, which makes it hard for the producers to create any kind of enduring narrative.
That perhaps speaks to the sheer scale of tennis. Unlike in Formula One, where only 20 drivers make up the grid and the series’ travelling circus occupies a single location each race week, tennis sees 256 players compete in the singles draws at each Grand Slam tournament, while there are hundreds of competitions across various levels every year. It therefore would have been impossible for the Break Point producers to develop anything that felt close to comprehensive.
What the format does provide, however, is an outlet for players to open up about the mental and physical strain of life on tour. Badosa, for instance, speaks about her struggles with depression, while there is also some insight into the business behind the sport. One episode covers what it’s like trying to earn a living as a tennis professional, the difficulty securing and keeping sponsorship deals, and the unique challenges faced by female players.
Indeed, true to its name, the show does succeed in painting a picture of how players are pushed to their ‘break point’.
Paula Badosa speaks openly during the documentary about her battle with depression
Does it add any value for sponsors?
Unsurprisingly, Break Point is a very slick production and the different camera angles afforded by the BTS format bring screentime for partners not necessarily captured by fixed cameras during television broadcasts. The Kia and Emirates logos are hard to miss during the Australian Open episodes, while there is some decent exposure for WTA title sponsor Hologic.
There is some benefit for the sponsors of the players who feature in the show, too, thanks to some savvy product placement. In fact, there’s one scene where Berrettini’s shorts seem to be crumpled almost too perfectly on the changing room floor, providing a close-up of the Hugo Boss logo.
Break Point also serves as a decent advertisement for some of the events outside of the Grand Slams, with the docuseries talking up the glamour and prestige of tournaments at Indian Wells and in Madrid.
There are no other obvious commercial integrations but you would imagine that, should Break Point continue beyond its first season, it will be used as a bargaining chip to demonstrate more value to both existing and potential sponsors.
Break Point does afford additional exposure for both tour and event sponsors
What’s the verdict?
In the same way that many of the players featured in Break Point need more time to become household names, the show itself needs longer to cement itself in the minds of sports fans.
It’s important to remember that even Drive to Survive wasn’t universally popular until its second and third seasons. Yet the docuseries was also a small part of a wider transformation of the Formula One business which saw it make improvements to everything from its digital strategy to its event experience and on-track product.
Viewers, particularly those who only tune into live tennis during the Grand Slams, will have come away feeling better informed about some of the players in this year’s Australian Open draw. And, to its credit, the show does do a good job of introducing the less publicised, unglamorous side of professional sport, as well as some of the technical intricacies that are unique to tennis.
Is that alone enough to have the same impact as a high-octane, reality TV-style show like Drive to Survive and give tennis the new fans it craves? At this early stage, it is too soon to say.