The Defector Guide To Making A Celebrity Sports Documentary

Hey there, marketing person or producer or whatever you do. Let me guess: You just LOVED The Last Dance, and you especially LOVED those sweet, sweet ratings and engagement. Never mind that we were in the early days of a pandemic, sports were canceled, and people were terrified and bored and looking for any shiny thing to pay attention to—the numbers don’t lie. People loved The Last Dance; they love Michael Jordan, the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Dennis Rodman escapades, and previously never-before-seen footage. But more importantly (to your bottom line), they love stories about the athletes and teams they USED to watch.

The sports documentary business has changed a great deal, no longer beholden to any sort of journalism or facts or even proper context. And that’s where we come in, Mr. Money. Thanks to our highly scientific analytical Nielsen system that we got in the Deadspin divorce, we have used math and science to distill the shared essence of all these popular sports docuseries, which can now help design the perfect celebrity sports doc for you to use and use and use again. And Lord knows ESPN and these streamers need the content; Stephen A. Smith is running out of ’90s cartoons to debate about.

Intrigued? Well, let’s get into it then.

Step 1: You must choose a worthy subject. It can be Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, the Orlando Magic of the Shaq and Penny era, Barry Sanders, Coach K, The Fab Five, the New England Patriots—you name it. You want to pick teams that are synonymous with winning or synonymous with the time they didn’t win. Absolutely no losers! This isn’t Jon Bois amateur hour; leave the graphs about all the ways the Jordan-era Bobcats lost to him. This is about cashing in celebrating a culture of success to inspire the next generation.

Step 2: Invite as many talking heads as possible. You can edit out the ones that suck later, in post. Make sure they reel off all the cliches that fans love hearing, like “championship grit” and “sacrifice” and how “winning isn’t easy.” And of the utmost importance is to make sure they emphasize how different the world is between then and now. You can do this by having them reiterate that this was “before social media and the internet.” Encourage them to say something like, “Making the SportsCenter Top 10 was my Instagram.”

Step 3: In many ways, people are complicated and there are no straightforward heroes or villains, but for our entertainment, it’s important to establish a hero, who won all the championships alone, and/or a villain, who totally ruined everything. One suggestion: Play a lot of sinister music whenever someone shows up who you want the audience to boo. Another is to fill the episodes with a lot of tall tales and damn near fables and even more fawning about the best player. Don’t let the star do it, of course, as they need to maintain humility. Let the other talking heads do it for them. Which brings us to our next point …

Step 4: Celebrities! Pack your sports documentary with a lot of famous faces. Every fan base should have at least one famous fan. Jordan got Presidents Obama and Clinton, Bob Kraft got Rupert Murdoch for The Dynasty, and even Barry Sanders got Eminem in his doc for some reason (fun fact: he’s never even heard of football). If you find yourself in need of options, Defector will happily provide you a slew of famous names who are ready to pretend to be a fan of any team, coach, or player of your choosing. Our rolodex is deep. We’ve got Bill Burr on standby now.

Step 5: Back to the doc’s villain—no one particularly cares about their side of the story. The people will have already decided to hate them. When they share their truth, just try to cut around it as much as possible. Frankly, if you can associate them with a coverup of some kind, like, say, one of their players murdering multiple people, that’s even better! If the story’s villain refuses to participate/engage or is otherwise dead, consider it a win.

Step 6: Now this directive comes straight from corporate America: It’s important to make sure our hero figure looks great. If he says something bad, flip it into a positive. Don’t press too hard about (for example) any gambling problems, any Trump affiliations, anything political (racial or gendered, and definitely do not ask about trans people), any infidelities, any visits to massage parlors, or any violent crimes that they were exonerated from in the court of law. You can ask, obviously, but tread softly so that you can say that you asked while not angering your subjects. Remember: The success of your documentary is tied to your star. We wouldn’t want to make them look bad like the crooked media.

Step 7: We’re here to inspire people, not depress them with reality. They need to know that winning is not an accident. It is the product of the willpower of the very best athletes who are better than us. Don’t forget this.

Step 8: If all else fails, or even succeeds, fill the doc with pop music. People just really want highlights set to their favorite songs.

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