Sports docu-series are earned, not given. But even if Netflix “gave” one to track & field, the sport would not experience a Drive to Survive-like surge in popularity or revenue.
Gambling, beer, head-to-head matchups, live music, food trucks… track & field fans cycle through a short, well-trodden list of That One Thing that will bring fans to the sport, packing stadiums and making the sport an irresistible target for investors, sponsors and media rights buyers. The current That One Thing (not to be confused with the Current Thing) is one of the first new additions to the list in some time, and requires significantly more money and corporate buy-in before it can work its magic of achieving
<checks notes> money and corporate buy-in for the sport.
Track & field fans have noticed that nearly every sport – or at least those worth talking about - has a behind-the-scenes docuseries. So has the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, who asked “If Netflix isn’t filming a show about your sport, is it really a sport anymore?”
Maintaining their decades-long tradition of confusing cause and effect, track & field fans are now voice-voting “DTS” – short for Drive to Survive, Netflix’s OG docuseries on Formula 1 – to the rank of That One Thing not only in their conviction that it would propel track & field into popularity and lucre, but that it’s no less than the sport deserves. Because, like the WSJ’s Gay, they see DTS, Sunderland Til I Die, All or Nothing, Welcome to Wrexham, Break Point and Full Swing, and ask “Well, why not us? Are we not really a sport anymore?”
Well, here’s why not.
Surviving on a nine-figure budget
In May 2014, a “splinter group of the mostly wealthier teams” in Formula 1 formed the Strategy Group. Their cause: nullifying the $200MM per team budget cap that racing teams and the International Automobile Federation (FIA) had agreed to six months earlier.
Of the five major teams on the Strategy Group – Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Williams – only Williams complied, unintentionally, with the by-that-time voided budget cap for 2015. Each of the other four more than doubled up on the proposed $200MM limit, while for the other F1 teams that season, $200MM was an aspiration and a dream, neither a target nor a hard stop.
Lowly Manor spent a paltry $90 million. Like, why even show up?
An actual spending cap would have to wait until 2020 – with a one year grace period before being enforced in 2021. Teams had to limit themselves to $175MM. That could mean a two-thirds reduction in the budget for some of the top teams, in order to nominally narrow the gap with the minnows.
The spending cap stand-off came in the middle of a decade-long decline in Formula One viewership. Between 2014 and 2015, Formula 1 lost 25 million unique viewers – about 6%. That is, they dropped from 425 million unique viewers to 400 million.
Two months before the New York Times reported on the Strategy Group’s machinations against the $200 million per team budget cap, ESPN was one of the few major sports media outlets to cover a $450-500 million deal: Nike’s 23-year extension sponsoring USATF.
The deal roughly doubled Nike’s annual backing, which had been about $10 million per year in cash and in-kind.
With this leveling up, Nike would spend about the same amount each year on USATF that McLaren spent that same year to win each of their 27 points in the F1 standings.
ON THE SUBJECT OF DOLLARS PER POINT: NCAA TRACK & FIELD SPENDING AND SUCCESS: CAN WE BUY A POINT?
Ten million per year looks about the going rate for major T&F federation sponsorships over the last decade. In 2019, Wanda Group bought the naming rights to IAAF’s Diamond League on a 10-year, $100MM contract.
Based on IAAF financials leaked to The Sports Examiner, the annual income from Wanda would about cover one year of IAAF’s “other spending;” or, if you’re of the “pay off debt first” persuasion, half of the annual deficit. Or, if we ported it over to Formula 1, about six weeks of Manor’s 2015 spend.
Formula 1 spent the latter years of the 2010s shopping for any viewership metric that allowed them to show growth. At least once a year, sports business journalist Christian Sylt would write an article for Forbes about how Formula 1’s viewership is up using their newest accounting method, but down under the terms of the previous year’s (or years’) method.
By 2021, though, Formula 1 was growing worldwide under any measure, as demonstrated not just by their numbers but the fact that they were comparing apples to apples on a year over year basis. Total unique TV viewers were over 440 million, with an average audience of 70 million per race. And not only were more people worldwide watching Formula 1 races, but more young people – the key 18-34 male demo – were watching the races and engaging with the brand on social media.
Netflix premiered Drive to Survive in 2019, and there’s every reason to believe that there’s some causation to go with the correlation. But it’s also not single factor causation, especially regarding the younger audience.
In 2014, in the midst of their viewership decline, Formula 1’s long-time owner Bernie Ecclestone did the full Krugman by dismissing the effects and future of social media in sports and content more broadly. “[T]he change that is currently taking place is very shortlived, as these social media people are starting to think it is not as good as they thought.” When asked if he believed F1 needed to change its approach, and officially embrace social media like other sports have done, he said: “No. We’re commercial… If they find people to pay us [to do that] then I will be happy.”
One of the first things Liberty Media did after acquiring F1 and consigning Ecclestone to figurehead status was launching an aggressive digital media strategy. This helped stabilize F1’s attendance, viewership and engagement in 2019. Drive to Survive premiered in March 2019, so it’s possible that the DTS S1 surge in interest helped balance out any lingering decline, setting the stage for F1’s multiyear resurgence from 2020 to the present.
We ain’t got that history (or money)
Bernie Eccelstone started consolidating his power over Formula 1 racing in the mid-1970s, when he was in his mid-40s. Someone born in the mid-70s would be in his mid-40s now, such as actor, investor, and sports and media entrepreneur Ryan Reynolds. When he was born in 1976, the club that he would go on to own and make famous worldwide – Wrexham AFC – was already 112 years old. A few years later, Sunderland AFC would celebrate their centennial, with one of their final games of the season being a 2-1 win over Wrexham in front of 19,000 fans, in what we can retrospectively dub the Streaming Wars Derby.
Among the other factors that make Reynolds and Rob McIlhenny unique among sports team owners is that their team plays in its original stadium. Racecourse Ground has been Wrexham’s home pitch since Day 1, with a nominal capacity of just over 10,000 people but with a record crowd of 34,000 in 1957.
To give Wrexham’s attendance some perhaps familiar context, they have done for over 150 years never higher than the second tier of English football what a few teams in the second tier of American soccer are starting to do week after week, which is what the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, OR, did for a 10-day span.
WCH2022 ATTENDANCE: DOING FOR ONE WEEK WHAT 2ND TIER SOCCER DOES EVERY WEEK
Sunderland has a few years less history than Wrexham, but their history has more prestige, more fans and more money, giving the club – like their city and region – further to fall.
A somewhat spectral character personified the state of the club in the first season of Sunderland Til I Die. Sunderland bought Jack Rodwell for about $14 million in August 2014, and he was worse than a bust. By season 1 in 2017/18, he was an impossible-to-script heel in a show that wasn’t scripted at all.
If you’re not familiar with European football (soccer) transfers, that doesn’t mean the Black Cats paid Rodwell $14 million per year or for his contract. They paid $14 million to Manchester City to bring Rodwell to play at Sunderland, then started paying him to do ever less as each season went on.
So, for our purposes, to once against put things in familiar context, a Premier League club flailing for survival spent $14 million to bring in a single player in the mid-2010s, the same time frame that USATF was looking for new ways to spend their $10 million a year windfall.
From outside to inside and back again
The origins of each show - the relationship between the backers, producers and subjects of each – reveal themselves in the stories they choose to tell and the emotions they set out to convey and evoke.
Whereas Welcome to Wrexham was developed to chronicle, entertain and market to audiences Wrexham’s ambitions, Sunderland Til I Die inadvertently captured several seasons worth of tragedy and ignominy on Wearside. Definitely not what the show’s creators, lifelong Sunderland fans, had in mind when they pitched their docu-love letter to the club.
And that’s what Sunderland Til I Die was. Lifelong fans of club who came together at the production company Fulwell 73 – itself a Sunderland AFC reference - filmed an open love letter to the club. As with all open letters, the most important audience is not the “Dear ____” addressee, but everyone else out in the open.
Viewers gain a passable understanding of the transfer market, academies, domestic cup tournaments and managerial turnover, and a brutal education in promotion / relegation. But they get a deep appreciation of what a club like Sunderland means to a place like Sunderland, how the identity of a club and city can intertwine in innumerable and intangible ways over 150 years until they merge, and how deeply fans – a word that’s almost insulting in its shallowness when applied to Mackems – feel every shift in the club’s fate and fortune.
Over two seasons, viewers gain an understanding of a corner of the human experience far beyond the information they pick up about a team or a sport.
Drive to Survive, by contrast, set the standard for the glossy “documercial,” a term coined by the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay to describe Netflix’s Full Swing: “handsome fare that offers a look inside and a dash of introspection without cutting too deeply.” Full Swing and Break Point (tennis) are joint ventures between Netflix and those sports’ respective governing bodies: the Association of Tennis Professionals and Women’s Tennis Association, and the Professional Golfers’ Association.
Mutatis mutandis to survive
Gay’s column points to the commodification of the genre. “Is it only a matter of time before we see a zippy Netflix series on arm wrestling, lawn bowling, badminton, cornhole, or contract bridge?” Note that even when he’s doing bantz, track & field doesn’t enter the picture.
He goes on to frame the pitch behind each successive show:
“If you’ve ever thought, The only thing better than watching people play golf is watching people talk about playing golf, then this is the series for you, my friends.”
And that brings us to the key points for proponents of “DTS, but for T&F.”
Each additional show further fragments the potential market for this genre of shows. Drive to Survive and Sunderland Til I Die were able to reach large portions of the market for BTS sports docu-series because they were the only ones. Now that market has a plethora of choices, and each new show’s potential share may even be smaller as viewers have gotten their fill of the genre.
To guarantee a minimum audience for each new show, then, each series needs to lock down fans of that sport. Instead of broadly relatable human stories and on-ramps to the sport’s traditions and practices, the new shows will start from sturdy assumptions about what the viewers already know about the sport and reinforce affinity with inside jokes, self-referential storylines and themes. Think of the second half of Season 3 of Arrested Development, after they learned they’d be cancelled: there was no point in trying to attract new fans of the show, so they doubled and tripled down on indulging their existing fans for the remainder of their run.
They will forego bringing in new fans to the sport because survival depends on servicing the current fans of the sport.
The end result: each sport’s niche is even nichier than before.
🎯 DTS and Sunderland Til I Die were for general audience, so they emphasized broadly relatable, human stories.— George M. Perry (@georgeabtsports) March 7, 2023
More series will fragment the market ➡️ have to lock in the fan base ➡️ stories will be more hardcore fan service / inside ⚾️ ➡️ niche appeal ➡️ won't drive growth. https://t.co/b0HiNBXfUT
The alternative is for a show to find a new hook, something other than behind the scenes with players and coaches. When the track & field community emotes their DTS FOMO, they often say things like “We have personalities! We have drama! Imagine what we’d see in the locker rooms and hear from the agents!”
Arm wrestling, lawn bowling, badminton, cornhole and contract bridge have personalities. Arm wrestling, lawn bowling, badminton, cornhole and contract bridge have dramas. Because arm wrestling, lawn bowling, badminton, cornhole and contract bridge have people doing people things, some more and some less in a sporting context.
And we don’t have to imagine anything. We just need to make some small tweaks and a couple find-all-replace from any other sports show and we’ll have a pretty solid idea of what we’d see and hear.
“Survive” wasn’t meant to be this literal
I always want reality to be my guide, so as I deliberated over several possible endings for this article, reality came through as it always does and resolved the issue for me.
Jack Buckner, 61, who took charge as the UKA chief executive nine months ago, is seeking backing for a Netflix-style documentary that will follow Britain’s finest athletes on their journey towards next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.
Buckner, sources claim, has persuaded the athletes to waive any fees for the greater good, yet BBC Sport is said to have rejected the idea. - The Sunday Times
Track & field could not pitch a show to a company like Netflix any more successfully than they could pitch sponsorships to potential non-endemic sponsors, nor any more successfully than athletes, meet directors or agents could negotiate – like, really negotiate – for a legitimate improvement in sponsrship terms with their existing, endemic sponsors, for the same reason in each case.
Track & field only knows how to speak the language of what they need, not the value they offer.
Buckner took to the BBC essentially the same pitch that dozens of American athletes and clubs make every year to the foundations and charities that pour money into the one-way channel that is pro track & field. Like meet directors building up to the slide in their pitch deck that contains the sponsorship levels, Buckner pleaded his case from what he needed and why. Like athletes, fans and most of the sport’s major media, Buckner laid out how much the sport costs the people and organizations in the sport, and then asked someone else to assume those costs.
Even if track & field had the billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of viewers that Formula 1 had in the down years of the mid-2010s…
…even if track & field had the 130+ years of continuous history and milions of dollars and weekly tens of thousands of in-person fans that Sunderland AFC and Wrexham have, set inside the context of the growing worldwide fanbase of the Premier League…
…even if track & field had the millions of dollars, millions of viewers, and hundreds of thousands of fans who come out to one or two pro events that pass through their city every year as part of a coherent, cumulative, professionally managed and commercially viable series like golf or tennis have…
…it wouldn’t matter, because it is not within the culture of track & field to make their case in terms of how they can be of value to a prospective partner. Track & field instead requests what they have determined they need, without regard for whether it comes from this prospective partner or that one. The interchangeability of the low value sponsorships is inextricable from track & field offering, at most, the low value sponsorship commodities of “awareness” and “exposure.” That’s not just an outdated worst practice. It is impeccably un-self-aware: any company that has the disposable money to toss some towards track & field almost by definition has higher levels of awareness and exposure than T&F. If anyone would benefit from awareness and exposure in such a transaction, it’s track & field. There’s truly nothing in it for the other party.
What does track & field have that Netflix could want? How would Netflix gain from producing a DTS but for T&F?
Even if we imagine that they will get the same value from a T&F show that they’ll get from their proliferating DTS / STID knock-offs, what would T&F benefit from a show that would necessarily be by and for T&F?
Proof of concept is proof of work
Pro track & field needs a lot of work – far more than most of its pontifiactors think - if it is to be commercially viable or have any meaningful presence outside of its niche. It needs much more than a show, and a show would have only limited on its popularity or viability.
MORE: RETIRING NIKE EXEC’S CAREER EXPLAINS A LOT ABOUT TRACK & FIELD
But pro track & field doesn’t even attempt to sell what currently has to offer. That’s partly because it doesn’t attempt to “sell” anything – it requests on a good day and begs and pleads on the others. But it’s also because T&F doesn’t make any effort to analyze and understand what it does, in fact, have.
That’s the proof of concept for any bigger dreams within the sport. Work with what you have at the level you have it. Show that you know what you have and can work with it. Whether that’s an idea for a meet, a YouTube channel, a web app or an athlete promotion, that’s the bare minimum test any duly diligent party will subject a potential partner to: a true proof of work.
Photo credit: Artes Max / Flickr, under CC BY-SA 2.0.