The past decade for ESPN has been an eventful one, to put it mildly.
The Disney-owned sports powerhouse has broadcast some of the highest-rated games in its history, re-upped with the NBA and NFL, launched new networks and entered the streaming race. But it has also coped with industrywide pay-TV subscriber declines, management changes and intense scrutiny of its relationships with league partners and the political views of its talent.
Over that stretch, arguably ESPN’s biggest creative triumph has been its 30 for 30 franchise, which is marking its 10th anniversary this month. Crowned by the Oscar-winning breakthrough of O.J.: Made in America in 2016, the banner has been attached to more than 100 feature films, dozens of shorts and a slate of podcasts. Conceived at a time when sports narratives largely were confined to premium cable networks, print publications and one-off independent documentaries, the series has grown from a single email to the epitome of sports-derived storytelling.
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“The landscape is so incredibly different than it was 10 years ago,” Libby Geist, VP and Executive Producer of ESPN Films and Original Content, told Deadline in an interview. “Filmmakers used to laugh at me when I’d call, like, ‘I’m not going to make a TV movie with highlight clips.’ But we have a leg up now and we have a lot of people reaching out to us. One reason for that is that we’ve always stayed true to the mantra of letting 30 for 30 projects be director-driven.”
Bill Simmons, the ESPN alum who now runs digital brand The Ringer, was an online columnist known for ESPN when he proposed something ambitious ahead of the network’s 30th anniversary in 2009. Connor Schell, who ran ESPN Films and is now EVP Content, recalled in the ESPN oral history Some Guys Have All the Fun that the original goal was to “create a kind of mosaic to tell a larger story of what sports have meant to America over these 30 years.” In speaking with filmmakers, Schell said, “we knew within 45 seconds of sitting down with someone whether or not they were going to do this.”
Early doers included Barry Levinson, Spike Lee, Ron Shelton, Albert Maysles and the Hughes Bros. Their topics had plenty of edge — hardly the norm for an ad-supported network that could have just coasted on its $8 billion in annual profit. Films explored the intersection of Colombian soccer and cocaine trafficking; the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur; and the role of race in former NBA star Allen Iverson’s conviction on riot-related charges that later were dropped. Not everything was heavy, of course — over time, 30 for 30 would also focus on lesser-known stories like the hot-dog eating contest at Coney Island and the pioneering New York sports-talk radio run of Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo.
Stanley Nelson, a filmmaker known for Freedom Riders and Miles Davis; Birth of the Cool, is directing an upcoming 30 for 30 entry about Michael Vick. A former superstar NFL quarterback, Vick is is better known in some parts of the country for being prosecuted for running a dog-fighting ring. Despite his initial hesitation years ago about the notion of ESPN being a force in feature film, he said “they’ve really progressed and grown” as a “filmmaker-centric” operation.
Seeing the O.J. Simpson project, which aired as a five-part miniseries but also screened theatrically as an extra-long feature, underscored Nelson’s belief “that these films could be a lot bigger and do a lot more” than tell conventional tales.
Geist, whose brother is NBC News personality Willie Geist, said that as much of a milestone as O.J. was, it didn’t establish multi-part stories as a fixture.
“You can’t just replicate that 100 times over,” she said. “It really has to be organic. That film wasn’t ever designed to be as long as it came out, but the material warranted it. We certainly have a couple of stories in the pipeline with that kind of potential, so we’ll see.”
Having joined the 30 for 30 initiative from the start as an assistant producer, Geist has seen it evolve and thinks it will thrive during Jimmy Pitaro’s tenure as ESPN president. Pitaro succeeded John Skipper in 2018 and while the network remains solidly profitable, it has faced scrutiny for Pitaro steering away from politics or social issues and taking conspicuous steps to shore up lucrative relationships with league partners.
In Geist’s experience, though, Pitaro has been nothing but supportive. She recalled her first meeting with him, when she was intending to present a PowerPoint deck but wound up mostly talking with her new boss, who was “such a vociferous fan” of 30 for 30. One project early in his tenure, Geist recalled, “could have caused him a lot of trouble.” It was a candid portrait of NFL linebacker Junior Seau, whose 2012 suicide has been blamed on the multiple concussions he suffered as a player, an issue that has long dogged the NFL.
Seau, which aired in September 2018, included some sections casting the league in a less-than-flattering light. Pitaro “excitedly watched a bunch of rough cuts and gave us his thoughts but at no point did he interfere. We all really feel like we lucked out with him coming in — even though he didn’t start 30 for 30, he understands its value, and that’s huge.”
Nelson thinks the Vick saga could follow a similar arc given its swirl of often-contradictory themes. Vick, who was a hugely popular player who redefined the quarterback position and injected hip-hop into the league, in the director’s view, but he is synonymous for some people with animal cruelty. “The appeal for me was to look at the story in its totality,” Nelson said, “and 30 for 30 is a place where I can do that.”
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