July 1, 2024

How Netflix Is Cashing In On Sports' All-Access Content Trend

“Receiver” marks the latest collaboration between the streaming giant and pro sports leagues to deliver exclusive behind-the-scenes storytelling to the masses.

Dominic Faria

Photo Credit: Netflix

183 billion hours.

According to Netflix, that’s how long human beings spent staring at their screens while using the company’s platform in 2023. Divided equally across its roughly 270 million subscribers, that’s 678 hours per user – the equivalent of nearly a month’s worth of time (28 days) taking in all that sweet, sweet content. And in 2024, Netflix wants that almost incomprehensible figure to be even higher.

Is there such a thing as too much content? Absolutely not.

At least, that's the line of thinking Netflix has adopted with its eight-part, all-access football docuseries “Receiver.” On the gold-lined coattails of last summer's hit series “Quarterback,” the streaming giant once again partnered with NFL Films, Omaha Productions and 2PM Productions to deliver a behind-the-scenes, in-season look at the lives of select NFL athletes. Only this time, they're the ones catching passes, not throwing them.

It's the latest iteration of a branded content trend that's proliferated across the ever-expanding sports universe, where massive corporations like Netflix and the NFL are joining forces to build their brands and reach wider audiences in new, innovative ways. Together, they’ve tapped into the rich market of reality sports television, where viewers are hungry for stories that go far beyond the playing field.

The NFL, to its credit, was an early adopter of this made-for-TV (now made-for-streaming) model, which has been a mainstay of the league’s content strategy since it launched its training camp series “Hard Knocks” on HBO in 2001. Billed as the first “sports-based reality series,” “Hard Knocks” set the standard for future all-access endeavors by giving viewers a brutally honest look inside the building of an NFL franchise as it gears up for a new season – tears, coach tirades, curse words and all.

“We know how to be a fly on the wall, I like to think, better than pretty much anyone in this industry,” NFL Films senior executive Ross Ketover told The Hollywood Reporter last fall. “We developed it starting in 2001 with Hard Knocks and have gotten better and better each year.”

From the success of “Hard Knocks” sprouted Amazon’s “All or Nothing” franchise, which debuted in 2016 as an in-season NFL reality series and later expanded to include international soccer and rugby. That same year, Netflix also began its foray into the reality sports landscape with “Last Chance U” before launching more recent, higher-profile projects like “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” “Full Swing” and “Break Point.”

All-access sports reality content is everywhere, and it seems like everyone (even the NBA) is angling to get in on the action, indicating the genre’s growing cultural relevance. But what exactly makes shows like “Receiver” and its predecessors so wildly popular? And why are big brands like the NFL, PGA, ATP and others teaming up with streaming platforms to produce their own content?

A Recipe for Good Television

Let’s start with the popularity: Sure, it would be easy to point to the fact that college and pro sports (and the NFL especially) are among the country’s most-watched television programs, which would logically lend one to assume that any reality series derived from such programs would automatically dominate the charts. But that doesn’t paint the entire picture. 

Take Formula 1, for example. Before “Drive to Survive” debuted on Netflix in 2019, the international racing competition was a niche sport with a fledgling American audience. Now? F1 has established itself as a legitimate player in the lucrative U.S. sports market, thanks to a tidal wave of new fan interest stemming from the ongoing Netflix series, which released its sixth season back in February.

What’s true for “Drive to Survive” is true for “Quarterback” and the rest: elite athletes make for lively characters, and the drama-filled nature of professional sports makes for good storytelling. While the die-hards will always tune into the live competitions, good storytelling can transcend a sport’s usual base of subscribers.

For Netflix’s vice president of nonfiction sports, Gabe Spitzer, this was especially true for a show like “Quarterback.”

“The off-the-field stuff – the wives, children, trainers – was really important for us to hit on,” Spitzer told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I think we also try to be a little bit edgy in our sports storytelling, and work alongside Omaha [Productions] to push on that a little bit more.”

A Symbiotic Relationship

With Netflix’s industry-leading “personalized recommendations” algorithm, the barrier to reaching new audiences and retaining old ones across the platform’s legions of subscribers has grown astronomically low. Get enough people to watch a sports reality series right when it drops, and the machine will start bumping it up the results page and suggesting it to a broader array of customers. (Kind of like how SERP rankings determine webpage traffic online).

That ability to leverage a vast subscriber base and reach new audiences is certainly one of the reasons why the NFL and others have chosen to hitch themselves to Netflix’s wagon. And, like any content-based venture nowadays, Netflix’s detailed and reliable content analytics are critical for leagues to understand exactly how well (or how poorly) their content is being received.

But the benefits go both ways. In partnering with professional sports leagues, Netflix can extend its reach into the crowded sports media landscape without the same live event inventory as its competitors (Amazon, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery) and at a much lower price point (rights to premium live sporting events cost in the billions). Also, the nature of the behind-the-scenes docuseries allows Netflix to hold its release until long after the games wind down, thus satisfying fans’ intense demand for original off-season content they can’t find anywhere else.

All that is to say: all-access reality sports television, if done right, is a win-win for everyone involved. Leagues and their athletes can elevate their collective profiles through quality storytelling, and the streaming services that own the rights to their content can cash in on more views and happy subscribers.

Despite some minor early struggles with shows like “Break Point,” don’t expect this trend to go away anytime soon.

Dominic Faria

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