ESPN didn't hold back in making controversial Junior Seau doc.

By Jacob Feldman
September 20, 2018

Writer’s note: Welcome to SCREENSHOTS, the first in a series of weekly reports from the intersection of sports, media, and the internet. 

Last week, The New York Times described ESPN as “a network in lock step with the NFL.” A new 30 for 30 documentary on ESPN+ complicates that narrative, but its significance also goes beyond the company’s journalistic reputation.

Just like any meaningful business development, the story here starts with a meeting. In the summer of 2016, documentary producer Kirby Bradley offered ESPN’s Connor Schell a clear pitch: Junior Seau would have been considered the least likely NFL player to kill himself. And yet...

Before Colin Kaepernick and the anthem debate split the NFL, before Ray Rice and domestic violence issues shamed the league, there was Seau and a concussion probe that seemed to imperil the entire sport. 

A beloved figure in Southern California, Seau played linebacker in the NFL for 20 years, racking up Inspirational Player of the Year honors and Leadership Awards while accruing Pro Bowl invitations. But as his Hall-of-Fame career ended, Seau became irritable and erratic. He struck one of his sons, was arrested, drove his SUV over a cliff, and, in May 2012, died of suicide at the age of 43. A year later, scientists found signs of CTE in his brain tissue.

Bradley wanted to tell that story, and in 2015 he got the family’s OK to produce an “unvarnished” portrait of the man—the final product would not shy away from Seau’s philandering or mistreatment of family members. Finding a home for the project was another task altogether though.

Going in, Bradley knew there would be some powerful people unhappy with the film’s existence, and while he “went to all the obvious suspects these days—HBO, Showtime, Netflix,” he didn’t get a yes. “I always intended to pitch to ESPN too,” he said, “but I assumed there was no chance because they have the biggest relationship with the NFL.” A couple years earlier, ESPN had pulled its support for Frontline’s “League of Denial” report (which mentioned Seau multiple times) after reportedly feeling pressure from the league.

However, Schell expressed interest during the meeting, and the documentary was greenlit roughly in the fall of 2016. Bradley found the company willing to wade into touchy waters if the story was compelling enough, fair, and accurate.

Which brings us to the next meeting in the timeline, earlier this year. ESPN VP Libby Geist, who oversees the 30 for 30 unit, sat down with new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro to walk him through her division’s upcoming roadmap. His vision for the network has been portrayed as safer, with the Times using phrases like “down-the-middle” and “bread-and-butter.” Meanwhile Geist had a list of projects that will, in her words, “push some buttons.” So was she nervous? “Maybe,” she said, before adding, “just because I didn’t know him very well.”

Pitaro quickly put her at ease. “I’ve probably seen every 30 for 30,” he told her. “I love what you all do. Let’s see what you’ve got.” Still, he had some questions when Seau came up. Geist explained that, as with every film, the team wasn’t hiding anything from the league. They had asked the NFL to license footage of the former Charger. Bradley had also requested interviews with certain league experts, though he ultimately hit a dead end. And she promised to keep Pitaro in the loop.

The final product is far more profile than investigation. Even for someone who followed Seau’s descent, there are revelatory, moving moments throughout the film, like fresh looks at the big hits Seau took (and delivered) along with emotional memories of his final conversations from friends and family. Bradley also got access to parts of Seau’s journal, providing a first-hand account of his struggles, voiced by one of his sons. Geist says it all fits with 30 for 30’s larger mission, to focus on story rather than shock.

Still, Seau’s impact on the CTE discourse is part of his lasting legacy, and the documentary includes critiques of the league from Bob Costas and Chris Nowinski. “I hope this project just makes people think about what this game can do to its players,” Bradley says.

A year ago, ESPN was coming off O.J.: Made in America. "O.J. changed our ambitions in the original content space,” Schell said in March 2017. “Those are the creative swings we want to take.” Fifteen months later, the film franchise was facing a so-called “troubling lull.” But of course 30 for 30’s roadmap doesn’t fluctuate that swiftly. The Seau doc was three years in the making. As for what the future holds, there are roughly 18 stories in various stages of production at the moment. “We are not changing course in any way,” under new leadership, Geist said. “We are going to tell important stories, warts and all.”

Moving past all this “perception” “narrative” “reputation” hoo-ha, Seau does still signal a concrete shift at ESPN. It’s the first 30 for 30 to debut on the company’s $4.99/month ESPN+ service since the subscription launched with an exclusive doc, The Last Days of Knight, in April. Seau has been pegged for ESPN+ since before the service’s debut, with the thinking being that the sport and the title character would be popular enough to draw in new subscribers. ESPN+ also offers a seven-day trial.

A lot of what ESPN could do to boost its newest business initiative is limited by contractual agreements, making the in-house film component an anchor of the offering. That means more money for Geist’s unit, but also a rethinking of how they create and market their productions—and how those productions are judged by higher-ups. Seau will likely eventually air on cable, but probably not for at least six months. In the meantime, its reception on the ESPN app will be studied closely by those ready to relitigate the company’s business and editorial standing.

INTRODUCING THE NETFLIX FOR SPORTS … OR IS IT SOMETHING DIFFERENT?

DAZN (pronounced da-zone) is streaming its first major event in the United States Saturday—a heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin. This is big news for boxing fans, and something everyone else ought to keep an eye on.

Regularly called the "Netflix of sports," DAZN has been available in seven other countries, offering a straightforward monthly subscription for a varied set of sporting events. In Canada, for example, $20/month gets you a package including NFL RedZone. Here, the service has taken a different launch strategy, focusing on fight sports fans, with a busy schedule of boxing matches and Bellator MMA events available for $9.99/month (with a 30-day free trial). 

“We saw an opportunity with fight sports for a number of reasons, number one and most importantly, there’s an underserved consumer base,” DAZN North America boss Joe Markowski said. Last weekend, fans paid $84.99 for the pay-per-view Canelo vs. GGG fight. Now, they can watch a number of lesser fights for a much smaller monthly cost, and Markowski is hopeful that the offering will also draw in more casual sports fans at the price point.

But Markowski also has his sights set well beyond the fighting world. DAZN is part of Perform Group, run by former ESPN president John Skipper. Perform Group, meanwhile, operates under Access Industries, which itself is helmed by the wealthiest man in the United Kingdom. So yeah, lofty goals. 

“We’re going to be quicker than people expect us to be in announcing a spreading of our wings into different content buckets,” Markowski says. For what it’s worth, the prevailing wisdom he references pegs DAZN as a potential major player come 2021 or so.

All of that makes Saturday’s broadcast notable. DAZN hired Brian Kenny and Sugar Ray Leonard to call the fight, with Kay Adams, LZ Granderson and Chris Mannix also contributing to the show.

Markowski is confident the debut will go better than the service’s roll-out in Canada last year. After launching with exclusive Sunday Ticket access, DAZN cut a deal to allow TV providers to offer it as well following widespread technological complaints early in the year and a statement from Michael Markovich, the NFL’s Vice President of International Media and Business, who had to “apologize for the inadequate service.”

Here it’s worth comparing the "Netflix of sports" with the Netflix, of well, Netflix. Speaking last week, executive Maria Ferreras reiterated that the company had “no plans” to offer live sports because “there’s nothing we can do differently from a television broadcaster, so it doesn’t add additional value.” Building a sports streaming company is significantly more difficult than building another Netflix for three main reasons: how valuable sports television rights are, how hard it is to reliably deliver content to a massive user base simultaneously (plus how damaging it is to fail during an event compared to going offline when you’re only showing non-live shows), and how quickly games lose their value to viewers after they’re over, compared to evergreen movies, documentaries, and TV shows.

Still, Markowski is confident he can win users over, in boxing with unmatched price and value, in other sports simply by monopolizing the rights and serving them on every platform for a straightforward price. For most people, that will still mean watching on a big-screen TV. Netflix changed what and how we watch. DAZN isn’t interested in that. “Ultimately the model is acquire content that fans want to watch, present it in a way they want to consume it, and deliver it to them at a dramatically lower price point,” Markowski said. “It isn’t reinventing the wheel.”

Markowski explained all of this from behind his desk, which sits in an internal office on a shared floor in New York’s 27th loftiest building. The only thing that would qualify as a wall decoration are a handful of blue and yellow sticky notes to the right of his head. The closest thing to a personal belonging is a packed duffle bag next to the door, presumably headed to London with him for Saturday’s fight. But don’t worry, he explained, DAZN was soon moving One World Trade Center, the western hemisphere’s tallest tower. He’ll have a better office there, maybe a window. There’s no better metaphor for American sports media’s newest entrant.

SPACE JAM 2 IS HAPPENING. REALLY!

How did we get here? Rumors of a Space Jam 2 date back to 1998, when Michael Jordan reportedly turned down a redux. Ballislife.com has a full timeline, including rumors of a LeBron-led movie in 2006 and him expressing interest publicly in 2012, but things really got going in 2015, when James’ SpringHill Entertainment signed a content deal with Warner Bros. 

Star Trek and Fast & Furious director Justin Lin was tied to the project for a while, but this reboot will instead likely be the mainstream debut for director Terence Nance. Nance currently has a TV series, Random Acts of Flyness, on HBO, which is part of WarnerMedia. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler is signed on as producer. Coincidentally, The Ringer’s Miles Surrey wrote earlier Wednesday about the dozen media properties James is currently involved in.

After watching LeBron carve out his own career and voice separate from Michael Jordan’s shadow, it’s a bit odd to see him follow MJ’s footsteps so closely here. But at the same time, this has felt like too obvious an idea to not happen eventually. Worth noting: Jordan was 33 years old when Space Jam premiered; James is currently 33.

Given James’s other projects, I would expect this version to more directly address social issues than the original, which focused on a believe-in-yourself message en route to becoming the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time. (The closest thing to social commentary might have been Foghorn J. Leghorn’s response to chicken-shaming.) However, James did hint at a similar theme of universal empowerment when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter.

“The Space Jam collaboration is so much more than just me and the Looney Tunes getting together and doing this movie,” James said. “It's so much bigger. I'd just love for kids to understand how empowered they can feel and how empowered they can be if they don't just give up on their dreams.”

NASCAR STEPS INTO THE AR WORLD, AND ASKS YOU TO FOLLOW

While the playoffs started Sunday in Las Vegas, NASCAR VP of digital media Tim Clark is competing in a different race. Like any media company, the auto racing stalwart has been experimenting with virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360 video, trying to evolve with the times and compete with the near-infinite alternatives hungry for attention.

NASCAR took another step this week with the launch of its “AR Playoff Experience.” The in-app feature lets fans “walk into” a scene from the previous weekend’s race. “We’re in an exploratory phase,” Clark says. “We’re trying to test out new experiences like this to see which ones are able to engage fans, what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and how we can improve.” 

What they have now is fun to play with but closer to a beta product than the future of fan interaction. It works best in an open space that you can freely walk around in and was not completely stable when I tested it in an apartment. You can currently check out pre-race scenes, but there are already discussions about including moments ranging from drivers meetings to victory lane. 

ONE STORY WORTH READING

Antonio Brown is an Instagram All-Pro. But is that the full picture?
By Jesse Washington for The Undefeated

Living near Pittsburgh, Jesse Washington said he was simply curious about who the Steelers star wide receiver was off the field. Yet just when you think Washington’s story is content listing Brown’s accolades, recounting his humble beginnings, and highlighting how the wideout has found a way to share a positive message online, it veers in a completely different direction. The trainer complimenting AB’s work ethic in chapter two questions his character in chapter four. “He nothing like he portray on the internet,” the mother of Brown’s first child writes to Washington. And then another twist, as Brown reached out to the writer directly during the reporting process, telling him to “stay in your lane.”

Ultimately, the article becomes a rumination on the relationship between (primarily black) athletes, (primarily white) reporters, truth and social media—the “alternate reality” put up by sports stars, but really all of us. “It’s not news to anyone that athletes and lots of other people often present a sanitized image on social media,” Washington said. “My editor and I knew that going in. I think we were able to explore some of the real-life ramifications of that duality.” 

After the story went up, Brown tweeted at Washington: “wait to I see you bro we gone see what your jaw look like.” He has since apologized. This week, Brown has missed a meeting for “a personal matter” and tweeted “trade me let’s find out” in response to the suggestion that he’s only good because he has Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball, as the virtual and physical worlds continue to merge, leaving the “real” world increasingly murky.

SIGHTLINES

News and notes from across the sports media landscape

• Six years after being profiled by Golf Digest, Valentino Dixon was freed Wednesday following 27 years served for a wrongful murder conviction. How about this quote from the lawyer who helped secure the man’s innocence—“It’s embarrassing for the legal system that for a long time the best presentation of the investigation was from a golf magazine”—on, where else, GolfDigest.com?

• The “Can sports be apolitical?” debate received a shot in the arm this week from a New Yorker essay comparing Clay Travis and Mark Leibovich’s new books and their views on what sports ought to be.

• Two things I enjoyed recently from SB Nation: one smart one on the important work Madden did to portray Shaquem Griffin accurately and one silly one tracking college football “empires” (which I’d love to see someone replicate for a World Cup).

• Ben Strauss profiled the rising conservative at ESPN, Will Cain. Stephen A. Smith told Strauss he likes arguing with Cain over “The social and political issues…. If it’s a sports conversation, he can’t hang — it’s like a train running over somebody.”

• The Verge: “The person running your favorite football team’s Twitter is probably a woman.”

• Having left ESPN, Jemele Hill’s next role will be narrating Shut Up and Dribble, a three-part documentary airing on Showtime in November and one of the aforementioned SpringHill Entertainment projects that LeBron James is involved in.

• Over at Sporting News, Michael McCarthy wondered if Sunday Night Football could return to ESPN.

• The Alliance of American Football, a pro league launching early next year, hopes “its tech platform will revolutionize both football and how digital natives engage with the league's televised games.”

• After being crushed by nearly everyone for his decision to retire at halftime, Vontae Davis told The Undefeated, “I feel great. I haven’t felt like this in … well, in my whole life.”

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for this clip, a first-ballot hall-of-famer.

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