The rise (and fall) of the behind-the-scenes sports documentary

By George Brown |

From Manchester City to Leeds United to even the England rugby team, behind-the-scenes documentaries have become more and more prominent in the sports world in recent years. So in the light of Tottenham Hotspur FC’s announcement of their own “All or Nothing” behind-the-scenes documentary deal with Amazon Prime and on a more local scale, CSM Rugby Men’s team releasing plans to film a documentary themselves, it is time to debate the pros and cons of letting the cameras into the dressing rooms and exploring how it actually affects what happens on the pitch.

CSM Rugby Bottle Match 2018 – Credit: Clare Lemon

To start,  for me, the undisputed king of the sports documentary has to be ‘The British and Irish Lions Rugby Team’ not only has the documentary been on the TV for years before the new plethora of sports documentaries,  but has also consistently been brilliant at  capturing the very essence of historic sporting events.

‘The British and Irish Lions Rugby Team’ documentaries have combined the two crucial pillars of this genre of documentaries. It sheds light on the training and preparation that goes into the teams we love as well as displaying the raw emotion that accompanies sporting failure and success. Furthermore, the documentary never shies away from the nasty side of sport, showing us the agony of injury and the anger of defeat. The greatest compliment would be that this documentary genuinely feels unrestricted, as if we as viewers are seeing the team as they really are, warts and all.

This leads to the next dilemma of the documentary, this one more philosophical.  That problem being  ‘why are defeats so much more compelling than victory?’

It seems to go against the normal reasoning when it comes to watching sport, as traditionally the challenges faced are only worth it if victory is ultimately achieved. Yet, the defining image of Manchester City’s first “All or Nothing” venture is Pep Guardiola screaming at his players “Nobody Talk!” after a dismal performance against lowly Wigan, in a season where they won two trophies and amassed a record 100 points in the Premier League.

There is a pleasure in seeing failure because it feels more secret. We get to see trophy presentations, open top bus parades, even little clips from training through social media,  but we don’t get to see the weakness or insecurity that failure brings, but as the name for Amazons sport documentary series’ name sums up: it may be “All” but it’s also “Nothing”, and that’s what these documentaries show.

However, will there ever be a point where documentary-makers actually wish for failure?

Take the most classic and recent example: Sunderland Till I Die. Now it is certainly wrong to accuse production company Fulwell 73 of wanting Sunderland AFC to fail, especially as co-founder Leo Pearlman is himself a Sunderland fan. Yet, the tone of the series is bizarre, it is still definitely a good watch and has proved popular and successful with fans and neutrals alike but surely with Sunderland’s  first season with the documentary team following them ending in relegation and major upheaval, the documentary  has not benefitted Sunderland’s image in the wider world. They came out of it looking like a club which has lost its connection with the fans, with players who don’t even care enough to play, and a chairman who is at best depressingly negative and at worst incompetent. Leo Pearlman stated in an interview with The Chronicle that “being original is the most important thing” and whilst that may be true for the people behind the camera, those in front of it may not benefit from being involved in the first televised club-sized catastrophe”.

The Stadium of Light – Wikipedia

So why do sports teams sign up to make behind-the-scenes documentaries?

Joe Phillips, a spokesperson from the CSM Rugby team, gave an interview with the Falmouth Anchor, giving his reasons for why his team are filming a documentary for the Bottle Match this coming year. Joe stated  “The Bottle Match has huge heritage and an even bigger rivalry” attached to it, whilst also describing how they want to capture how “passionate” the CSM team are about the event, he also went on to  mention how the production of a behind-the-scenes documentaries can be used to promote sport in Cornwall.

CSM Rugby – Credit: AJ Burstow

These reasons are genuine and honourable. It must be noted too, that this is a project CSM are undertaking themselves so credit must go to them for trying to increase their coverage and influence within the local sport community.

In the wider world, the reason more global franchises like Tottenham Hotspur are keen to catch the documentary bug is because it is now more important than ever to connect with your fanbase and make them feel close to their team.

Overall, it pays to embrace defeat as well as victory, but not to come off the camera looking worse than you did without it.