‘There’s a curiosity about what’s behind the curtain’: the rise and rise of TV sports reality shows | Media

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There’s a moment early in the first episode of Netflix’s behind-the-scenes tennis show Break Point at which 22-year-old Costeen Hatzi, current girlfriend of the Australian ace Nick Kyrgios, laughingly admits that she has never watched a tennis match in her life. “This is all new for me,” she says.

In this respect she is a mirror image of the viewer that the streaming service, and indeed tennis itself, wants to attract. Sports television has long been the preserve of dedicated fans, the kind of people who can reel off scores, records, statistics, and tend to be what James Gay-Rees, the award-winning British producer of Break Point, calls “a male, pale and stale demographic”.

Although that particular tribe of enthusiasts is firmly established in their armchairs, they are getting older, and the challenge for many sports is to draw a more youthful audience, the kind of people whose main experience of TV is to watch shows such as Love Island and The Traitors.

Now a whole range of sports reality TV shows is on the way. There’s one documenting this year’s rugby union Six Nations championship, due to be screened next year. Full Swing, which follows top golfers through a season, is out this month, and there will also be behind-the-scenes TV series on the 2022 Fifa World Cup, the Tour de France and the Invictus Games.

“There’s an appetite among audiences to go beyond the broadcast version of sport,” says Gay-Rees, who also produced the groundbreaking Senna about Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna, and Netflix’s Formula One series Drive to Survive, which returns this month for its fifth season. “There’s a massive curiosity about elite athletes and a desire to understand sport in a different way, to see the personal investment by going behind the curtain.”

Younger audiences are also more plugged into social media platforms, where personality is marketed as celebrity, and celebrities aspire to the status of brands.

At the upper end of the scale, the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has 542 million followers on Instagram. It’s been estimated that he earns £1.65m a post, which means over £82.5m a year. But even Kyrgios’s girlfriend, Hatzi, who has become a beauty influencer, now has 172,000 followers on the same platform. She has benefited from the 3.3 million followers who make Kyrgios one of the most followed tennis players, despite being ranked only 20th in the world.

Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton in Netflix’s Drive to Survive.
Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton in Netflix’s Drive to Survive. Photograph: Netflix

Ronaldo owes his celebrity to his ability, but there are signs that personality could start to trump performance. Until now, sport has been well served by expert TV coverage. But the unsqueezed dramatic juice is now thought to lie in the surrounding personal stories, the lives outside the competition.

In some ways the career of David Beckham was a harbinger of these developments. While never the most talented footballer in the UK, he became arguably the most famous player in the world due to the way he projected a carefully curated image. It’s this increasing image-awareness that also brought us the Premier League series All or Nothing on Amazon Prime. In taking cameras into the previously sacrosanct dressing rooms of Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, the show exposed the kind of conflicts that have traditionally been hidden from public view, as well as shots of footballers’ high-performance cars and expensive home interiors. Most of all, it offered a glimpse of athletes away from the cliches of after-match interviews.

In the US, where the trend is more advanced, everything from American football and cheerleading through to surfing (season two of Make or Break debuts on Apple TV+ this month) has received the reality TV treatment. It’s also the market where Drive to Survive has been credited with opening up F1 to a wider and younger audience. TV ratings for the sport were up 40% by 2021. The show effectively removed the opaque helmets from the drivers and introduced their high-pressure, if luxurious, lifestyles to a new generation of viewers.

“We’ve given drivers their identities,” Ross Brawn, F1’s former managing director, said. “And that’s been enhanced by Drive to Survive, which has really focused on the personalities.”

Some participants, such as the fiercely competitive but often thwarted Australian Daniel Ricciardo, the former McLaren driver, proved to be naturals in front of the camera. And previously shadowy figures – such as team principals Toto Wolff of Mercedes and Red Bull’s Christian Horner – were placed centre stage in an intriguing battle of wills and machinations.

“I think it’s got to be the single most important impact for F1 in North America,” Zak Brown, the chief executive of McLaren Racing, said.

Golfer Brooks Koepka practising at home in Netflix’s Full Swing.
Golfer Brooks Koepka practising at home in Netflix’s Full Swing. Photograph: Netflix

Initially the two biggest teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, refused to participate in the programme – F1 is a notoriously secretive sport in which the standard mode of communication is paranoia – but relented when they saw the viewing figures.

Still, a number of drivers and team managers have voiced concerns about the way the action is edited to create false rivalries and tensions – as if, without the cameras, all is usually peace and harmony in the paddock. A more serious accusation is that, in ramping up the drama, the coverage affected the outcome of competition.

At the end of the 2021 season, the driver’s championship was controversially settled on the last lap of the Abu Dhabi grand prix after a decision by race director Michael Masi to order a restart that did not follow the rules. The call robbed Lewis Hamilton of almost certain victory and some observers felt that the F1 hierarchy had been swayed by the need for a suitable TV denouement.

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“It was obviously made to be a fight, it was for the TV of course,” said McLaren driver Lando Norris after Max Verstappen, amid confusion and appeals, edged out Hamilton to claim the title.

Gay-Rees quickly dismisses the idea. “I think [Masi] was just under a lot of pressure and got things slightly wrong. I don’t think he was thinking ‘What does Netflix want?’”

Yet Gay-Rees does believe that the barriers between sporting action and the stories that envelop it are destined to be broken down in the future by more comprehensive television coverage.

“I think you will see a divergence of broadcast strategies that will make the experience less siloed and more fluid,” he says. “As the narrative develops, the documentary piece and the live piece will become more integrated.”

If shows such as Drive to Survive and Break Point are the first steps in that process, it’s noticeable that different shows about the same sport are spread across different broadcasters. For example, F1 is shown on Sky Sports but Drive to Survive is on Netflix. Similarly, Break Point, which focuses on the generation of players struggling to emerge from the long shadow of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, is on Netflix, but tennis matches are shared between its streaming rival Amazon Prime and Eurosport, with the BBC monopolising Wimbledon.

Tennis player Nick Kyrgios in Netflix’s Break Point.
Tennis player Nick Kyrgios in Netflix’s Break Point. Photograph: Netflix

The early signs are that the integrated experience is enduring some teething problems. The first five episodes of Break Point were released before the Australian Open in January and featured nine promising younger players and Kyrgios, 27 – a controversial figure on the tennis court who has admitted shoving his ex-girlfriend Chiara Passari in Canberra in 2021, but avoided a criminal conviction.

Not one of the nine went beyond the fourth round, with most either injured – like Kyrgios, who withdrew before his opening match – or going out by the second round. Some observers spoke of “the Netflix Curse”, but the real question is whether participation in a reality TV show has a negative effect on performance. In elite sport, after all, the margins are so fine that any distraction is seen as a threat.

For Blake Friend, who manages Ricciardo, Drive to Survive improved his client’s commercial allure, adding 2 million followers to his Instagram account. “People’s first comments when he meets them are often ‘we saw you on Netflix’,” he said at the end of 2021. Yet it’s worth noting that while Ricciardo was one of the show’s most prominent drivers, he has since lost his place as an F1 competitor and is now only the standby driver at Red Bull.

It’s also hard to imagine serial winners such as F1’s Hamilton or Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic allowing cameras into their hotel rooms in the way that tennis players Matteo Berrettini and his girlfriend, Ajla Tomljanović, do in Break Point. But then, as we come to know these sportspeople in closer and more intimate ways – and Gay-Rees says he receives dozens of offers from sports administrators, teams and individuals wanting the close attention – being a winner may become less important than being a winning personality.

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