The Sports Documentary Business Keeps Growing

Today’s post comes from our partnership with the Columbia University Graduate Program in Sports Management. You can follow them on Twitter at @CUSportsBiz.

“You always look for those stories that have a ‘wow’ factor, ones that you are amazed that haven’t been told and then you try to find the right people to help bring them to life.” Those were the words of producer Wes Smith when he recently addressed a class of  high school students at Columbia University enrolled in a Sports Business summer course after a screening of his latest project “Forgotten Four,” which will air on EPIX in late September.

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The film, co-produced by former HBO head Ross Greenberg and in association with the NFL, certainly has a wow factor; it tells the story of the four African-American athletes who broke the color barrier in professional football the year before Jackie Robinson made history with the Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball. Smith, who played football at Penn before pursuing a legal career and getting involved with the fast-growing genre of sports documentaries, heard the story from one of the actual players; the late Bill Willis (who played at Ohio State and then for the Cleveland Browns) and then set about finding the way to give the story life from a business perspective.

“It has to start with the story and then you have to go and find the right partners who are willing to take the risk and bring the story to life,” he told the class. “Sometimes you are able to pull all the pieces together to raise the money and find a venue to tell the story, sometimes it doesn’t work out. This one though had special meaning and when someone like Ross Greenberg says ‘I get it and let’s do it,’ things can fall into place pretty quickly.”

The other pieces to the puzzle included finding a home for the film, which Smith and Greenberg found in EPIX, the premium service which has had a focus recently on issue-based documentaries like “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” which they aired last fall. This story of race relations in sports fits what they were looking for. Smith also needed the buy-in from the families of the four players; Willis, Marion Motley, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode; since by the time he was ready to help create the film all four had passed away.

“Without the family trusting you to make the story correctly, it would not have worked,” he added. “So getting that trust, and finding a platform like EPIX, were also key pieces to getting this project to completion.” It also didn’t hurt that the NFL decided to lend some marketing support to the project, given the positive message that the story eventually tells about race relations past and present. “The NFL liked what we were doing, and their buy-in was an added bonus,” he said. “Being able to have that shield gives the documentary even more credibility.”

Sports documentaries are a growing business, as evidenced by the overwhelming success of platforms like ESPN’s “30 For 30,” the work being done for the Tribeca Film Festival, and the projects being taken on by channels like EPIX, Showtime and HBO, not to mention the hundreds of self-funded projects that live online. Production values have not lessened as production costs get streamlined, which is music to the ears of storytellers and producers like Smith.

“It is a tricky business model to manage sometimes, but if you have the right project and the right partners, and understand the business model, things can happen pretty quickly,” he added. “There is probably no better time for sport and film, and it is great to be involved.”

The involvement in film as a sports business professional certainly wasn’t something Smith was seeking as his career evolved, but it is something he is looking to expand upon now. A film about the only woman of color to ever own a sports team is a potential next project, with others on the way.

“That’s the great thing about sport; there are so many great real-life stories that people can relate to that still haven’t been told, and the market is growing,” he added. “It’s all about matching those stories to the business plan and taking it from there.”

Smith’s newest story seems to be a game changer both for himself and his partners and for the issue of race in sports. It is certainly one to watch when it comes out in late September.

Special thanks to Gina Antoniello, a 2013 grad of Columbia’s Graduate Sports Management Program, Instructor of the Columbia HS Summer Sports Business course, and sports business marketing-communications strategist. Follow her on Twitter at @G_Antoniello.

Columbia University Sports Management

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