How sport tells stories in 2021

After years of middling performance, Formula 1 believes it is gaining some real traction in the US. It averaged 911,000 viewers across the first six Grands Prix of the 2021 season, up 36 per cent on 2019 and 50 per cent on 2020.

For McLaren chief executive Zak Brown, the primary reason for that breakthrough is clear: Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive.

Netflix and the rise of sports documentaries

“It’s got to be the single most important impact in North America,” he told in June. “Almost every comment you get out of someone out of the US, they reference Drive to Survive.”

Brown added: “It’s done such a great job not only just raising awareness, it’s turning people into avid fans. You get kind of ‘trend fans’ and you hope to put them into the ‘avid fan’ category.

“With Drive to Survive people go [from] ‘I’ve never watched a Formula 1 race in my life’ to ‘I’ll never miss a Formula 1 race again’. That’s been Drive to Survive.”

Netflix only releases data selectively around viewership numbers on its platform, but Drive to Survive has been a clear international hit since its debut in 2019. It has allowed Formula 1 to encourage an affinity between fans and personalities at all levels of the sport.

‘Netflix has enabled us to showcase the sport in a whole different light, making the drivers and team principals overnight celebrities to a new audience,’ wrote Ian Holmes, director of media rights and content creation at Formula 1, in an email to NBC News. ‘The series has also made it easier for fans in the US to understand our sport, which is one of the key barriers we face when engaging non and casual fans.’

More diverse storytelling

The past decade has brought a rolling boom in sports documentaries. The likes of ESPN’s long-running 30 for 30 series have raised the bar in production values and editorial heft, while subscription video on demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and its growing band of competitors have brought wider opportunities for distribution to bigger audiences.

The result is that a more diverse range of sports stories are being told, and their impact is greater. That reached new heights during the early, mostly live sports-free months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when new episodes of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance were eagerly anticipated worldwide each week. The series even brought fresh exposure to long-serving partner brands like Gatorade and Jordan’s own footwear line with Nike.

All of this, though, represents only one kind of storytelling. As digital media creates larger, yet more disparate and amorphous potential fanbases, rights holders in sport are having to think of how they engage with the public in the round. That begins with the sporting action itself. More and more federations and governing are experimenting with rulesets and formats that shorten the gaps between dramatic passages of play or make their game more accessible to newcomers, while aiming to be recognisable to core fans.

Exploring the changing role of content

Elsewhere in motorsport, the all-electric, off-road championship Extreme E has built its storytelling offering from the ground up. Much like the more conventional Formula E series with which it shares a founder, Alejandro Agag, Extreme E was conceived as a means of showcasing sustainable technologies in the automotive industry and beyond.

In Extreme E’s case, that does not stop with its choice of vehicles. Each of the settings for its inaugural season’s X Prix were chosen to highlight a specific environmental challenge. Cars are being transported from race to race on a ‘floating paddock’ which will double up as a climate research facility. Meanwhile, to demonstrate its values in a different way, Extreme E has also introduced mixed teams of male and female drivers and co-drivers throughout.

Alongside that, naturally, Extreme E is also covering as many bases as it can in its media strategy, from the best available linear distribution to original programming and live streaming on TikTok. Developing a forensic understanding of audience behaviours is essential, but it helps to start with a strong grasp of what is being communicated.

Athletes and talent are central to the process

It is vital to recognise, too, just how central athletes have become to this process. Social media has given individuals an outlet to share and control their own stories for years now and that trend has only accelerated. Moreover, it has resulted in stories about sport that are not just about striving for success in competition but also the things that matter most to the people involved, from social justice to matters of identity, culture and community.

New companies have emerged to take athlete stories further, with The Players Tribune helping them reach fans directly with open letters and superstars like LeBron James launching their own production companies. Yet athletes are changing the narrative in subtler ways all the time.

Naomi Osaka withdrew her voice from the public space ahead of tennis’ French Open and, in doing so, started a conversation about autonomy and mental health. In a very different manner, by interacting at a UEFA Euro 2020 press conference with bottles of Coca-Cola that dozens of other players have ignored, football icon Cristiano Ronaldo extolled the virtues of proper hydration and launched a debate about the mores and structures of sports sponsorship in the 2020s.

All of this builds into a landscape where it is easier to tell a story than ever before but, at the same time, it is easier for someone else to tell it for you – for better or worse. That can never be fully controlled but those with the firmest sense of what they are and what they stand for have a stronger chance of being heard.