Football documentaries: fly-on-the-wall or fly in the ointment?
It started as a rumble in the distance then the sound of quickening feet became discernible. But now the early arrivals have pitched their tent and the big guns will not be far behind.
Yes the major OTT platforms have been marching towards sport for some time. So, now they are putting their first stakes in the ground with documentary deals, it is probably worth asking whether they are friend or foe to sports content.
This piece was prompted by reports of issues accommodating the requirements of Amazon’s new behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall series at Manchester City.
If they are granted dressing room access on matchday and other juicy angles, then the club will be acquiescing to “asks” that the major broadcasters have seen rejected.
And remember Amazon’s contribution to the coffers at Etihad Stadium will be a fraction of the money they get from Sky, BT Sport and international broadcasters.
Then I wonder about the in-house team, like the one I used to run at Arsenal. Obviously, I have no specific knowledge of City’s situation, merely my media reports and my experience elsewhere. But the club’s team have no financial leverage and familiarity often leads to a contentment to give them access that is best described as ‘standard fare’. Hardly the red carpet treatment rolled out for the new guys with the ability to reach a new audience.
When I experienced similar situations, there will be extra cameras on shoots, discussions over “when are you putting that out” and perhaps a little horse-trading over the shots.
It is neither ideal nor unsolvable. These are the wrinkles of change.
And anyway some great stories have been told with precious little access. Thinking around the problem yet still producing quality is where in-house teams earn their stripes.
They also have certain factors in their favour such as depth of knowledge, the best contacts at the club and, most importantly, covering its entirety (youth team to boardroom) leads to some serendipitous shots.
However, the sheen of club cleansing can shackle your story and if the narrative is too far from that of your supporters then they will click elsewhere. This explains the rapid rise of well-produced but no-holds-barred fan channels on YouTube.
Two major weapons in the club’s counterattack should be a more liberal approach to access and widening the storylines away from the narrow narrative of UK sports journalism.
But neither is happening very quickly. The Amazon deal is a step towards the latter and it may burn up the club’s tolerance for great access in the process.
Then, in the UK at least, there is the spectre of previous fly-on-the-wall football documentaries that went as good as viral before the phrase existed.
The Impossible Job did nothing for England manager Graham Taylor after he uttered “Do I not like that”. While John Sitton’s solid lower league career is remembered for little else but the finger-jabbing, expletive-laden sacking of a player at half-time during “Leyton Orient: Yours for a Fiver”. (It is interesting to note that, had that happened these days, he could have probably ridden the reality TV circuit for a few years.)
Meanwhile, the hype around Being: Liverpool in 2012 and the supposed race to be the subject of the feature film Goal! seemed to offer very little return.
Contrast this with my two years in Major League Soccer where openness was encouraged, players nearly always said yes and they tended to be fully engaged. Heavens-to-Betsy they even spoke well on camera!
In my last year in the US, the League pushed for teams to film their locker room speeches before, during and after the game. They also encouraged mic’ing players in the warm-up and coaches on the sidelines in-game. This was not simply because MLS has to innovate to grow its influence in the crowded US market. It was the culture of the country’s coverage. If Tom Brady was being interviewed on the pitch 30 seconds before the SuperBowl kicked off then ‘little old’ soccer could unbolt the locker room door.
That said, there was still tension. But it was different tension. Digital was a major plank of MLS’s strategy and the League’s in-house team had a strong culture of quality storytelling. But clubs were also encouraged to invest and develop their in-house digital teams. So when my side, Colorado Rapids, pulled off a major coup to sign US keeper Tim Howard from Everton both we and the League had similar ideas for coverage. Despite these growing pains, it all worked out in the end, everyone got their angle and there was certainly room for two different versions given the stature of the player in US sport and the relative lack of stature soccer has Stateside. Rapids’ mini-documentary series was even given an award by MLS at the end of the season.
It will be different for the major football clubs in Europe, whose every cough and kick is captured on some sort of camera. New angles are a rare commodity unless they are a long way inside or outside the club camp. Extremities are always best.
And, of course, access is a saleable commodity at major football clubs these days. It used to be merely the take-it-or-leave-it fluff around which live games were promoted. Now it is a contracted right for broadcasters, best illustrated by the ever-increasing conveyor belt of interviews performed by a manager after each game. Then there are the partners who have left branding boards long behind and want regular video shoots with players. Add in extra deals like Amazon’s or the ones by national newspapers for post-match video to boost the stickability of their pages and you have a system under pressure. That’s even before the in-house team arrive with their begging bowl. Who’d want to be a communications exec with that little lot to manage?
Despite all this, it might actually work if every interview is interesting. But they are not, sports people are guarded anyway and now endure media training which, if you are cynical about it, protects their brand by making them boring.
The real problem is that, in reality, there is only enough good stuff. Only a small amount of truly interesting content is gained via ‘access’ because the game is product, the interviews etc are merely the packaging.
That is why, when we watch game highlights on our DVR, our thumb might hover over the fast-forward button during the interviews and analysis but firmly press play when the match starts.
Amazon’s documentary should be a quality product. The access, the budget and the will of the club will make it so.
Coming on the back of Real Madrid’s deal with Facebook Watch, it may well start a trend among the major football clubs.
It would be nice to think it will usher a change of approach and clubs will start to release their grip on access and to allow different stories to be told. Ones far removed from the familiar diet of football fans, treating the sport as the entertainment genre it is increasingly moving towards.
That is why you have to applaud Southampton embracing the release of Stranger Things 2 or Everton linking up with The Open golf championship.
A little lateral thinking could change the focus and attract an audience weary of the same sporting storylines year on year.
In the world of content, boredom kills. There may be no chance to revive sports that slide into a critical condition.
So prevention will be better than cure.
* Got a view? Let me know below. Either I am right about everything or readers are not giving me their feedback. We all know it is the latter so let me know!