Behind-the-scenes sports documentaries have taken the world by storm, becoming some of the most-watched and anticipated pieces of media in the world today. However, many question the integrity of these programmes and whether they might be too intrusive, leaving the athletes with nowhere to hide from the limelight, not even their own changing rooms.
This week, Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ has released its fourth and perhaps most anticipated season yet. The latest episodes depict Max Verstappen’s championship-winning campaign, culminating in his controversial victory over Lewis Hamilton at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December. Since the launch of the series in 2018, Formula 1 has seen a spike in US viewing figures, a market the sport has previously struggled to crack. The 2021 F1 season was the most-watched in America to date, with overall ratings up by more than 40%. In addition, due to increased interest, a second US Grand Prix located in Miami has been added to the 2022 schedule, the first time the US has hosted two races since 1984. It’s evident, then, that behind-the-scenes documentaries can lead to positive growth for less popular sports.
This is what elite tennis is trying to achieve. In January, Netflix announced that in a brand new behind-the-scenes series filmed in 2022, they would be following “some of the world’s best tennis players as they journey around the world, seeking to win on the sport’s biggest stages.” Produced by Box to Box Films, the same production company behind Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’, the expansion into the sport of tennis has been met with anticipation from many. However, it’s equally important to question whether another behind-the-scenes sports documentary could do more harm than good for the athletes themselves, especially considering how stars such as Naomi Osaka have struggled with obligatory media duties in the past. It was only August when Osaka broke down in tears during her first press conference since withdrawing from the 2021 French Open for mental health reasons. Just how being filmed in the run-up to matches and during her down-time will affect her performances remains to be seen, but it’s probably fair to say that Netflix’s new-found intrusion into athletes’ privacy and preparation could have an adverse effect on the mental wellbeing and competitive performance of some.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have also dipped their toes into the waters of football, with titles like ‘All or Nothing’ and ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ being some of the most popular, particularly in the UK. And whilst globally lesser known clubs such as Sunderland have undoubtedly benefited from such programmes in a commercial sense, the integrity and honesty of the behind-the-scenes sports documentary, especially in football, remains questionable. It’d be naive to believe that the clubs themselves have no creative control over what makes it into the final cut of documentaries like ‘All or Nothing’. With the Big 6 clubs like Arsenal and Manchester City valuing their brand images to the extent that they do, what the viewer sees is very likely to be a diluted version of events, so as to protect the club’s reputation. So in this regard, viewers should be wary that the behind-the-scenes sports documentary is often nothing more than a PR tool used by football clubs in order to garner a broader international audience of supporters, thus leading to increased revenues.