Media Rights, Personal Endorsement, Basketball, North America

At Large | A successful Last Dance leaves the industry asking where the sports doc goes next

Netflix and ESPN's blockbuster series on Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls has been a major hit but it also raises questions about where original programming will fit in sport's commercial picture.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | A successful Last Dance leaves the industry asking where the sports doc goes next

Sport is getting back to something like its regularly scheduled programming.

‘Something like’ because we know already that baseball and soccer from Germany and South Korea will be heavily altered versions of what we usually see when we watch sport on television, what with their empty arenas and piped-in sound. For the most part, it will not be on anything like its regular schedule either.

No matter how hard producers work with graphical innovations or tighter camera angles, there is a good chance watching sport in a pandemic will be like going to the supermarket in a pandemic: part reassuring glimpse of normality, part eerie reminder of reality. But for all the contortions broadcasters and rights holders must make for the adapted return of more live competition to our screens – and for all the wider concerns about readiness and safety and responsibility – it will be a source of encouragement to much of this industry to see it come back. 

The live event is the most valuable product the sports business has to sell and the point from which all other value flows. The same is true for a wider media business working through its own essential compromises as it seeks to deliver people something other than difficult news. There is an ocean of library content available – which has been a subscriptions boon for Netflix and Disney+ – but precious little to generate forward momentum in the culture, and the advertising interest to go with it. 

That lack of novelty can be measured in the Zoom-based appearances on American talk shows by other American talk show hosts, gamely and breezily improvising over the absence of Hollywood A-listers with something to plug. 

Still, there have been some releases that have broken through in this time and none have broken bigger than The Last Dance, a ten-part documentary from Netflix and ESPN trailing the final season played by Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan’s rampant Chicago Bulls in 1997 and 1998. Live audiences for new episodes on ESPN in the US have hovered around the six million mark, figures comparable to or even in excess of actual NBA basketball on the network. 

Globally, it has achieved further notable success. According to Parrot Media, which estimates audience interest based on data including social media activity and piracy, it became the world’s most in-demand documentary late last month. Netflix is notoriously guarded about the ratings of individual shows but it has taken to issuing an in-platform daily chart and here in the UK, The Last Dance moved into top spot earlier this week.

With live sport and indeed participation on pause, this was always going to be a time to explore the potential of other formats and it is fair to say ESPN is pleased with what it has discovered. The release of The Last Dance was itself brought forward to plug the gap in the NBA season and now its network will repeat the exercise with three new entries in its long-running 30 for 30 documentary series. 

In late May comes Lance, a two-parter covering the climb and descent of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong; then a rumination on the career of martial artist Bruce Lee called Be Water; and finally, in mid-June, Long Gone Summer, which tracks the drug-tainted home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the 1998 MLB season.

The continued interest in this kind of filmmaking goes far beyond ESPN’s catalogue but the success of The Last Dance raises interesting questions about its role in sports media. Documentaries, even those with the patronage of major sports broadcasters, had once occupied a quite different space from the main event – a place of independent commentary and reflection. 

The Last Dance is filling column inches and airtime on panel shows; it is shifting units and collector prices for Air Jordans. This is the boldest example yet of the documentary as part of the marketing mix.

It is not quite fair to make a full critical assessment of the series just yet, with half of its runtime to go. It does have its flaws – the sour treatment of the late Jerry Krause elicits the odd wince, with the long-serving former Bulls general manager not around to defend himself. On the whole, though, it is compulsive viewing.

If the mix in sporting metaphor can be allowed, the filmmakers had started on third base here – with a colossal archive of intimate and in-game footage and the full participation of the principals – but they have had little trouble finding their way home. With respect, this is operating a register or two above polished behind-the-scenes output like Amazon’s All or Nothing series.

There is the operatic sweep of the Bulls’ push for a sixth NBA title in under a decade, with all the colliding egos and buried grudges those years of success had engendered. The storytelling is astute, grounding moments in the ’98 season in extended flashbacks, and evoking a faded monoculture through appearances by Jerry Seinfeld and one-time Dennis Rodman squeeze Madonna.

Yet more than anything, The Last Dance is in conversation with a myth – and that is where the lines between the commercial and artistic imperatives become most interesting. It is the story of the Chicago Bulls in general but finds itself drawn over and again, much as contemporary coverage was, by the gravitational heft of Michael Jordan.  

Jordan’s legend is one of sports marketing’s most fascinating achievements, based in his undeniable genius, his accolades and his magnetism in a way that neutralises his frailties. Consider, for example, an episode not yet encountered in The Last Dance but explored in another ESPN documentary, Jordan Rides The Bus. 

The story of a grieving Jordan ending his time in the NBA to fulfil his father’s hopes for a career in baseball, then becoming a middling performer for the minor league Birmingham Barons in a season hampered by a players’ strike, is tragic and faintly comic and deeply human. As a part of his public image, it just became proof he was born to play basketball, the prelude to an emphatic Chicago Bulls press release and the foundation for an actual movie co-starring Bugs Bunny. 

Sports marketing is an exercise in myth-making but documentary filmmaking is often the opposite. And however much The Last Dance succeeds in getting to the real Michael Jordan, its attempts are at least something to observe. 

Speaking to the Athletic, director Jason Hehir revealed that his subject had been concerned he would come off poorly in the documentary. Pretty often, to choose our words carefully, Jordan does seem a bit of a prick. But the series also has a tendency to fold his imperfections into the officially sanctioned lore. 

His overbearing truculence is a function of exacting standards; his brush with high-stakes gambling evidence, in his own words, of “a competition problem” rather than a personal one. The closest we come to an admonishment of Jordan was in his reluctance to act as a public figure as well as a commercial one, but even that is presented in the context of a suffocating media existence. 

That is not to suggest anything dishonest in that interpretation and perhaps, at this stage, there is no other way to cut it. The idea of Jordan has long since become bigger than the man. In one episode here, the rapper Nas compares wearing a pair of Air Jordans in the 80s with wielding a lightsaber. Maybe indulgence is the cost of that empowerment, a little hokiness to be forgiven if a kid can feel like Luke Skywalker. 

More widely, the success of The Last Dance will prompt questions about where the sports documentary goes next not as a genre, but as a product. How far it can grow as a commercial asset, without being sanitised to the point of advertisement, will be worth watching.