Before the whistle blows

Attracting streamers and activating fans: How genuine storytelling is invigorating sports broadcasting

2020 was the year that halted, changed, and reshaped sport as we know it – and in pressing pause on the broadcast of events, we hit play on the stories of the athletes who compete in them.

Alongside socially shared pictures of homemade banana bread, workouts, and office set-ups, was home viewing – and everyone was binging one Netflix series in particular. NBA documentary “The Last Dance” was the perfect mix of nostalgia and addictive insight, filling a viewing void for sports fans and, interestingly, grabbing and holding the interest of non-sports fans too.

It had everybody talking – loudly. Offering more than post-game interviews and moderated views inside the locker room, the character arcs and storylines explored over the 10-episode series were an invitation to connect with individual players, the team, and the game itself on a deeper level.

When the finale wrapped, “The Last Dance” posts could already boast a combined total of nine million engagements across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Its enviable buzz was a payoff for co-producers Netflix and ESPN, who had pulled forward its broadcast to fill the gap left in the live sports schedule while the NBA was halted due to COVID-19. “As society navigates this time without live sports, viewers are still looking to the sports world to escape and enjoy a collective experience,” ESPN said in a statement at the time. “This project celebrates one of the greatest players and dynasties ever, and we hope it can serve as a unifying entertainment experience to fill the role that sports often play in our lives, telling a story that will captivate everyone, not just sports fans.”

It makes sense that other sporting codes noticed – and are also keen to capture that whole new audience via the “collective experience” of the story behind the sport.

NASCAR has just accelerated a tale they hope will intrigue existing fans and attract new audiences. “The Crew” is a fictional comedy series, launched on the heels of the Daytona 500. Based around a racing team, the ten-part show is a partnership between Netflix and Nascar, with the latter taking a hands-on approach in crafting a fresh perspective of their sport, eager to connect with the streaming generation.

Amazon Prime (with the AFL) launch their own series in early March 2021, ‘Making Their Mark’. The seven-part special documents the unusual 2020 AFL season and follows several key players. “This series captures the inner sanctum of the AFL landscape like never before,” explained Luke Tunnecliffe, Executive Producer. Revealing personal and unseen moments is their key strategy behind forging a stronger connection with passionate fans. AFL media and digital manager Sarah Wyse noted, “The docu-series is just another way fans can connect on a deeper level with the game they love.” However, promising unrivalled access, untold stories – and tears, drama, and heartbreak if the trailer is anything to go by – the series will also clearly appeal to non-AFL devotees too.

With 2021 sports seasons underway, fans are ready to watch the athletes, teams, and events they already know and love. They’re also ready to keep watching long after the game ends.

Telling the tales of what happens before, during, and after the whistle blows remains an opportunity ripe for the taking – even though there are already variations we have seen many times before. For sports brands and broadcasters, the challenge lies not in simply making the stories of beloved athletes from eras past or present. What ultimately saw the success of “The Last Dance” – and what Nascar and the AFL seemingly hope to do with “The Crew” and “Making Their Mark” – is sharing a story everyone thought they knew, but learning that things weren’t what they seemed at all.

Along with engaging existing sports fans, hoping that streamers who fall in love with the stories first will follow their intrigue all the way to the sport and stay connected, means new eyeballs and even more talk.

Put simply, with a streaming audience keen for satiation, fingers hungrily pushing out their own content across social, comes a potential fresh breed of sports fans. A binge session to a season pass? Pardon the footy pun – it really is the ultimate conversion.

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