Sport Docs on the Box

Garry Whannel
University of Bedfordshire

Samantha N. Sheppard & Travis Vogan (eds.)
Sporting Realities: Critical Readings of the Sports Documentary
235 pages, paperback.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2020 (Sports, Media, and Society)
ISBN 978-1-4962-2179-7

The central theme of this book concerns the supposed golden age of sport documentaries during the last decade, signified by Academy Award successes in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In turn, as the first chapter explains, this growing prominence of sport documentaries is itself based on a broader and more lengthy golden age of US television, from the 1990s. Led by the successes of The Sopranos (1999-2007) The Wire (2002-8) and Mad Men(2007-15), this boom enabled the rise to dominance of subscription channels, after a long gestation.

Such shows were seen as high quality, the channels were able to utilise growing revenues to increase budgets, and further reinforce quality. While normally, sport broadcasting tends not to feature in the most prestigious award categories, the documentary form provides a way in. Some subscription channels exploited this to good effect, and they were aware of the value of sport in reaching the males aged 16-30 audience, always a challenging demographic for programmers. The first chapter, by Branden Buehler, expands on, and develops usefully, the central themes of the book. Much of the subsequent book is devoted to studies of various aspects of this boom in sport documentary. Several chapters involve discussion of films from just two series by ESPN – 30 by 30, and 9 by 9.

The early chapters grow out of identity politics, viewing films from the perspectives of gender, race and sexuality. Chapter 2 develops an intersectional analysis of the film Venus vs, about the black tennis champion Venus Williams. Chapter 3 examines the working practices of sport journalism and the tensions around women journalists accessing male locker rooms, as portrayed in Let them Wear Towels. Chapter 4 deconstructs the complexities within representations of gay athletes of color. Chapter 5 analyses two documentaries about black athletes who died at a young age. Given its centrality to the formation, structures and ideologies of sport, the concept of masculinities probably deserved more space.  Although the chapter on mountain documentary does draw upon the idea of masculinity, it is in the context of a rather specific niche case study; and there are far bigger issues to examine.

Four chapters have a more historical theme. Plec and Anderson examine two documentaries about the dramatic incident in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, when black American medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave “black power” salutes on the podium. Brentin and Brown analyse documentaries that capture the emergent tensions in the Balkans in the 1990s, refracted through sport. Kupfer offers a fascinating exposition of an early newsreel-based series, Sports Album, produced in the late 1940s, and syndicated over the next seven years. Gamache examines two mountaineering documentaries, through the lens of masculinity and father-son relationships. Finally, in what was for me the most interesting chapter in the book, Vogan outlines the ways in which HBO utilised boxing and boxing documentaries as part of the process of building its sporting brand. This fascinating account manages to weave together an understanding of the television industry, the place of HBO within it, the imperatives to win and hold audiences, the role of live boxing for HBO, and the development of documentaries that reinforced the HBO image.

This is well exemplified by Algorithms (2013), Ian McDonald and Geetha J’s extraordinary film about blind Indians learning to play tournament chess.

This study of HBO exemplifies one of the strengths of this book – many contributions are not limited to textual analysis but also provide insight into the processes of production and their economic underpinnings. The importance of demographics, the building of brand images through series, and the competitiveness between broadcasters are all dealt with. Less well examined, perhaps, is the crucial importance of intellectual property acquired through sports rights. Put simply, if you are not working in tandem with a broadcaster who owns the vital live action material from the past, it becomes much harder to make a convincing sport documentary. But such rights holders, with a big stake in the sports they cover, are not going to be overkeen to support critical or investigative documentary work.

I began to find the dominance of a rather limited and specific aspect of sport documentary – programmes made, often in series, by major US subscription channels, just a bit claustrophobic, to the degree that the chapter on Yugoslavia felt like being released into a wider world. The more historical chapters also contributed to a broadening of the rather precise contemporary orientation in the early chapters. The focus on major US television documentary in the book meant a neglect of independent film documentary, within which sport is a subject of growing significance. There is a well-established circuit of film festivals that feature documentary. While independent cinema is characterised by small budgets, with little to be spent on promotion, the best films are recognised by awards. This is well exemplified by Algorithms (2013), Ian McDonald and Geetha J’s extraordinary film about blind Indians learning to play tournament chess. It is worth noting that, unlike the ESPN series of sport documentaries, independent film documentaries, although garnering far smaller audiences unless adopted by television, are more likely to be seen by audiences watching big screens, in cinemas.

There is one rather puzzling lacuna. In a book on sport documentary in which boxing and Muhammad Ali both pop up a few times, there is no reference at all to the impressive film about the “rumble in the jungle”, When We Were Kings (1996) directed by Leon Gast.

Limitations on space will always impose selections and omissions, but given the imagined readership for this volume, I would have liked an outline, however brief, of the documentary tradition in the round. I am not sure that a reader who sought out all the films mentioned in this book would really have a sense of the richness, diversity and potential of the documentary form. The reader will, however, certainly acquire an informed sense of where contemporary US television sport documentary is at.

Copyright © Garry Whannel 2021

Table of Content

Samantha N. Sheppard and Travis Vogan

      1. The Documentary as “Quality” Sports Television
        Branden Buehler
      2. Intersectionality in Venus Vs.
        Aaron Baker
      3. No Girls Allowed! Documenting Female Reporters as Threats in Let Them Wear Towels
        Korryn D. Mozisek
      4. Documenting Difference: Gay Athletes of Color, Binary Representation, and the Sports Documentary
        Evan Brody
      5. To the (Black) Athlete Dying Young: Documenting and Mythologizing Len Bias and Ben Wilson
        Justin Hudson
      6. Protest and Public Memory: Documenting the 1968 Summer Olympic Games
        Emily Plec and Shaun M. Anderson
      7. Of Friends and Foes: Remembering Yugoslavia in Sport Documentaries
        Dario Brentin and David Brown
      8. “Measuring Up”: Fathers, Sons, and the Economy of Death in Mountain Film Documentaries
        Ray Gamache
      9. Sports Album’s Replay: Newsreel Compilations, Early Television, and the Recirculation of Sport History
        Alex Kupfer
      10. HBO Sports: Docu-Branding Boxing’s Past and Present
        Travis Vogan
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