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Netflix’s Next Play

With the premiere of ‘Boca Juniors Confidential’ on Friday, it seems clear that the streaming company is dead set on cornering the sports docuseries market

Elias Stein/Getty Images/Netflix

The summer at Netflix was largely defined by the romantic comedy. With a quartet of buzzy releases—Set It Up, The Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser—the streamer capitalized on a market recently ignored by Hollywood at large in favor of cinematic universes, reboots, and cherished IP. “We wanted to dive into this space that had been abandoned but was still a desire for people to see,” Netflix director of acquisitions Matt Brodlie told The Washington Post in July. Up until 2005, when Wedding Crashers was the sixth most commercially successful movie of the year, the rom-com was still a viable money-maker for major studios. But The Dark Knight and Iron Man in 2008 ushered in a new era defined by studios largely dumping movies with medium budgets that made medium profits (like 2006’s She’s the Man, which made $57 million worldwide) for the franchise flicks with massive budgets that made massive profits (Beauty and the Beast, which made $1.2 billion worldwide). The occasional Judd Apatow flick notwithstanding, the romantic comedy began to disappear from the box office.

But that doesn’t mean that the appetite for rom-coms disappeared, and this summer, a company that doesn’t measure success in box office totals swooped in to fill the void. Similar to how the company cannibalized stand-up comedy, in the past three months Netflix practically cornered the market on rom-coms, seeing competition from only Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians. Now, with the rom-com genre mined, and with Netflix’s ultimate mission of total content dominance not quite yet finished, the streamer appears to have its eyes set on another niche market: the sports docuseries.

Though it was a sports documentary—Icarus and its exploration of doping in cycling—that captured the streamer’s first Oscar win in 2018, Netflix’s focus on the sports docuseries subgenre has only gradually increased following the 2016 releases of Last Chance U and Fearless. Now, though, the list of Netflix Original sports docuseries is beginning to pile up. Just this year, the company has released First Team: Juventus, Coach Snoop (yes, this is a Snoop Dogg football show), Fastest Car, and a third season of Last Chance U; on Friday, Netflix will release Boca Juniors Confidential, another docuseries about an international soccer club. It’s not a very deep bench, but the company is in the process of building a stable roster of programming that fills a market void, and lends itself to a broader global audience. It might not be long before we’re talking about the sports docuseries in the same sentence as the rom-com.

Currently, the arena of sports docuseries isn’t a crowded one. There are three main players. First, ESPN’s widely celebrated 30 for 30, though 30 for 30 is less a series and more a collection of separate documentary films that air on television under an umbrella title. Second, there is HBO’s boxing series 24/7, which provides compelling behind-the-scenes buildups to the most anticipated fights of the year. Third, of course, is HBO’s Hard Knocks, likely the gold standard of the sports docuseries. Hard Knocks routinely clocks in just south of 1 million live viewers—which isn’t bad for a docuseries airing on a premium cable network, especially considering those numbers don’t account for people watching the show at their own leisure—and its appeal is also tied to its longevity. With 12 seasons, Hard Knocks is now a part of the NFL season, the thing fans watch to hold them over in the weeks before the opening kickoff.

Aside from these three series, the NFL Network airs A Football Life, a docuseries that focuses on different influential figures in individual episodes. A Football Life has aired over 100 episodes and counting. Elsewhere, there’s … not much else. Amazon’s All or Nothing, which has focused on rugby, football, and soccer teams since 2017, is the only other well-known sports docuseries on the air (unless you consider HBO’s LeBron James vehicle The Shop to be more sports doc and less talk show). The closest network TV has come to producing a sports docuseries is the brief contestant introductions on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior.

Sports are woven into the fabric of American culture—more people watch the Super Bowl than anything else every year, and in 2017 NFL games accounted for 37 of the top 50 highest-rated broadcasts. Yet, traditional networks have largely avoided looking to sports as a well of premium content. On regular cable, you can go months without flicking over to a sports docuseries; even the popular installations air either intermittently or seasonally. That is, perhaps, where Netflix comes in.

Netflix’s attempts to fill the sports docuseries void began with an aesthetic imitator to Hard Knocks. Premiering in 2016, Last Chance U followed East Mississippi Community College’s football team, documenting their successes and failures on the field, but also telling stories about the players’ lives and depicting how football serves as a last resort for many. (After two seasons on EMCC, the show changed its focus to Independence Community College in Kansas for its third season, which premiered in July.) Last Chance U was immediately well-received, buzzed about by The Hollywood Reporter, The A.V. Club, and The Guardian, which earnestly asked, “Is this the best sports documentary series of all time?”

Oddly enough, 2018’s Coach Snoop follows a template similar to Last Chance U, as Snoop Dogg headlines a football program in Compton that aims to keep kids away from gangs by sticking to the gridiron. As Cary Fukunaga made clear in a recent interview with GQ, at Netflix, content creation begins and ends with algorithmic decision-making. In shows like Last Chance U and Coach Snoop, you can almost see the algorithm at work, making note of the love for Hard Knocks and 30 for 30 and spitting out a like-minded series. (Last Chance U would be the first option in an “If you liked Hard Knocks” subcategory on Netflix.) Hard Knocks is the pinnacle, there’s no arguing that. But Hard Knocks airs only one season a year. Fly-on-the-wall football docuseries are on year-round on Netflix.

In expanding its roster of sports docuseries beyond football, the streamer premiered Fearless, a docuseries on bull-riding, in 2016 and Fastest Car, about car racing, in 2018. Fastest Car pairs narrative windows into the lives of car fanatics with an end-of-episode race against a supercar; the thrill comes from rooting for the upstarts creating fast cars from scratch, and seeing if they can take down a Ferrari or Lamborghini. It’s the kind of series that’d probably appeal to someone who likes Top Gear—or Amazon’s The Grand Tour, which is basically Top Gear, But With the Original Hosts—without trying to emulate their structure. And with Top Gear no longer on the platform, Fastest Car is the algorithm’s next-best solution—quite literally, as typing “Top Gear” into Netflix’s search bar produces Fastest Car as the first result.

Still, providing like-minded content to fans of renowned sports docuseries is just one part of the streamer’s strategy toward tackling the genre. As a company with over 115 million global subscribers, Netflix is also looking to capture an international audience—so naturally, it’s betting big on soccer. The company’s first foray into futbol arrived earlier this year in First Team: Juventus, a behind-the-scenes look at Italy’s top club team. Why Netflix chose to spotlight Juventus is easy to see: they’re one of the biggest and most valuable teams in Europe—and were even before Cristiano Ronaldo joined over the summer—and have one of the most fervent fan bases in the sport. As a series, First Team: Juventus isn’t perfect—the Manchester City edition of All or Nothing has superior production value and a more tantalizing premise—but it gives Netflix the ability to attract a massive audience nonetheless, while also creating a template for future soccer docuseries. There could be a second season following Juventus (which would be more interesting by virtue of adding Ronaldo to the fray) or First Team could go the anthology route à la All or Nothing and highlight a different club each season. Or, there could be an entirely new series focusing on a different part of the world, and appealing to another untapped international audience.

If a solid but somewhat standard show like Narcos is reportedly the most popular Netflix series due to its outsized global audience, a new docuseries like Boca Juniors Confidential actually makes sense. Like Juventus, the Argentina-based Boca Juniors has a large fan base, one that goes beyond South America: it’s also among one of the most popular clubs supported in Asia. It’s a club that makes sense as a focus in Netflix’s attempts to broaden its global appeal as much as possible. It’s not hard to imagine global soccer fans who are also Netflix subscribers getting swept directly from First Team: Juventus to Boca Juniors Confidential. Soon, soccer fans—and sports fans at large—may never need to look to traditional TV again for their sports content, outside of live programming.

The Netflix content train shows no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by the company’s $8 billion commitment to original programming just this year. The recent increase in original sports docuseries is just one thread in its massive enterprise, but the surge of new programs suggests it’s an experiment the company expects to pay off, as it did with stand-up comedy and rom-coms. The advantages of the initiative are easy to see: It supplies an underserved audience, an international audience, and the production costs are comparatively cheap. While Netflix is typically reluctant to disclose the specific costs of the majority of its programming, it’s safe to assume that all of its sports docuseries combined are cheaper to produce than Bright’s $90 million budget, or the purported $8 million per episode budget of Stranger Things Season 2.

All told, Netflix’s recent play in sports docuseries is an interesting window into the company’s programming strategy. It speaks to the company’s global and diverse ambitions that an increasing roster of sports docuseries has a home next to blockbusters like Bright and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a slew of children’s animated programs, original anime, zeitgeist-grabbing stand-up sets like Nanette, and, of course, the rom-coms. The gaping maw of never-ending content in the era of Peak TV isn’t just defined by more prestige-inclined dramas and high-brow comedies, more blockbusters and stand-up specials. Netflix’s ultimate goal is to be a hub for every single TV need, and the ongoing addition of sports docuseries—more of which could be announced in the coming months—is a sign that the company is tackling its mission one genre at a time.