Sports documentaries are turning into an unexpected battleground with the big streaming platforms rushing to sign up rights owners and athletes.
Amazon launched its All or Nothing behind-the-scenes franchise in 2016 and Netflix released Formula One’s Drive to Survive two years later, followed by the hugely successful international distribution of The Last Dance, which told the story of National Basketball Association (NBA) star Michael Jordan.
The success of these titles has led to Netflix penning new deals with golf’s PGA Tour and the leading men’s and women’s tennis organisations to create their own Drive to Survive-esque series. Dedicated sports streamer DAZN is also getting in on the action through the creation of DAZN Studios, which is tasked with building original content, including documentaries.
But what impact do these shows have on sport fanbases and who do they engage?
Ampere’s latest sport consumer tracker, which interviewed 15,000 online sports fans around the world, found that 64 per cent of sports fans regularly watch sports documentaries, with engagement particularly high in markets such as India, China, Australia and the US.
The success of this fly-on-the-wall format across key emerging and developing markets for several sports hints at why so many rights holders are using it as a means of engaging current and new audiences. The latter is key for those rights holders where fanbases have remained stagnant or are ageing. From Ampere’s study, over a third of those who regularly watch sports documentaries don’t actually engage regularly with live matches or broadcasts. This shows a significant opportunity to capture a new fanbase through an alternative medium.
In recent years, many rights holders have struggled to engage younger audiences with live content. This is against a backdrop of a fragmenting media landscape which has resulted in competition for eyeballs across traditional TV, online subscription services, social media and gaming, among other options. This is where sports documentaries fit in and can help to change the demographics of current fanbases by pairing behind-the-scenes footage with exclusive access to key sports personalities and athletes.
Shows such as All or Nothing and Drive to Survive are housed on subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms which naturally skew younger, and as a result those who regularly watch these series are 11 per cent more likely to be aged under 35 than average sport fans. For these younger audiences, for whom authenticity and storytelling are key to engagement, immersive sports documentaries allow them to get closer to the athletes and the sport, and see the human side of it.
To assess the true impact of this narrative-driven editorial on an event, let’s look at what is arguably the most successful of these: Netflix’s Drive to Survive. The series launched in March 2019 with a behind-the-scenes look at the teams and drivers involved in Formula One’s 2018 season and has been recommissioned every year since.
Crucially, the show has had a clear impact on Netflix’s penetration among the sport’s existing fanbase – in the third quarter of 2021, 64 per cent of Formula One fans in Ampere’s consumer tracker said they had household access to Netflix, compared to 53 per cent in the first quarter of 2019. This is a growth of 21 per cent compared to 14 per cent among all respondents in the study, and translates into approximately US$40.5 million in incremental revenue for Netflix from the additional subscribers.
But what has the impact been on Formula One’s fanbase?
Ampere’s consumer data shows that from Q1 2019 to Q3 2021, there has also been an upward trend in sports fans who enjoy watching Formula One, with the fastest growing demographic being 18 to 24 year olds, whose engagement has increased by ten per cent during that time. Regionally, this has grown most in North America, which has seen a 34 per cent rise in interest among this demographic, which is greater than growth seen by stock car racing series Nascar, the Summer Olympics and English soccer’s Premier League during the same period.
North America, and the US in particular, have been cited publicly as key for Formula One due to the huge sports rights deals available and the large number of potential fans to convert. This importance was cemented in 2021 with the announcement of a ten-year deal for the Miami Grand Prix, bringing the number of races in the region up to three. Therefore for Formula One and its owner Liberty Global, ambitions of growth in the territory are not simply limited to ancillary content, but also live access to the sport.
Among 18 to 24 year olds, APAC is the only region which hasn’t seen growth, with the largest declines in popularity evident in Australia and Japan. Yet while Formula One hasn’t been as successful in attracting younger audiences in that particular market, interest in viewing increased by six per cent in the region as a whole between Q1 2019 and Q3 2021. Much of this is being driven by older consumers, which aligns with the audiences most engaged with sports documentaries in the region – those aged between 25 and 54 years old.
Two years is not a long time in sport, especially when a rights owner is looking to shift the demographic profile of its event, but early indications suggest that initiatives such as Drive to Survive are beginning to have an impact in driving new interest from younger fans. The proportion of Formula One fans aged 18 to 34 within Ampere’s study has increased from 26 per cent in Q1 2019 to nearly 30 per cent as of Q3 2021. Although a small increase, it shows that the sport is heading in the right direction.
For the PGA Tour and tennis’ professional circuits, in the context of their deals with Netflix for new documentaries, these are exactly the demographic shifts they will hope to see in their fanbases. Golf and tennis have long had difficulties in attracting younger groups – currently over 50 per cent of the PGA Tour’s fanbase and 48 per cent of the ATP’s fanbase is over 45 years old – so they will be hoping that by opening the doors to their sports, they can engage fans in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Tennis, arguably, has an initial advantage over golf through personalities such as Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu who are young, social media savvy and can engage younger audiences. But documentary series on SVOD platforms can make a difference, too.
For Formula One, the 2021 title race was one of the most exciting and controversial in years. As soon as the race was finished, Twitter was awash with fans expressing excitement for the new season of Drive to Survive, a testament to how ingrained the series has become within the sport.
With the recent success of Drive to Survive and similar titles, we can expect increasing numbers of rights owners to embrace the content format in the near future.