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Reality TV | Behind-the-scenes sports shows proving a winner

  • Reality shows are relatively inexpensive to produce and often used as an incentive to view other programmes
  • ‘Hard Knocks’ has attracted an average of 3.9 million viewers per episode over the last three years
  • CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC have joined HBO and Showtime in broadcasting sports reality TV shows

Sports events are the ultimate in reality television. So what does that make reality shows about sports and the people who play, coach and administrate them?

Well, in the US, such programming has become a staple of a variety of networks. And because it is relatively inexpensive to produce and often is used as an incentive to view other programmes, “the real stuff” is successful.

So much so that many TV outlets can’t get enough.

While we’re not exactly talking the ‘Housewives of Wherever’ and the like, the sports reality shows do offer a relatively revealing behind-the-scenes look at their subjects.

Nowhere has this worked better than in boxing, where the personalities tend to be outsized and, frankly, the inherent violence of the sport sells.

For both HBO and Showtime, the premium non-commercial cable networks where the best in boxing is found – often through pay-per-view telecasts – reality series leading up to the actual bouts have become staple components in their programming. But why?

“There is one indisputable answer to that question,” says Peter Nelson, executive vice president of HBO Sports. “Before HBO launched the 24/7 series in 2007 there was exactly one non-heavyweight bout in boxing history that registered more than one million buys, the true benchmark for a megafight.”

That was in 1999, Oscar De La Hoya versus Felix Trinidad, which did 1.4 million buys on HBO Pay Per View.

“Since HBO unveiled 24/7, which showed fighters in a way never before seen by viewers, a wave of non-heavyweight fights have soared beyond the one million pay-per-view buy barrier, and the all-time leaders in the entire PPV category are all lighter weight bouts involving prizefighters named Mayweather, Pacquiao, Canelo and De La Hoya.

All of these guys have been showcased on HBO’s 18-time Emmy Award-winning 24/7 franchise.”

HBO provides approximately 32 million homes with its commercial-free programming. Showtime is just behind that with about 30 million, and also has found major benefits from reality sports shows, especially in the sweet science.

Major benefits

The annual series that generally is considered the king of reality sports programming is HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’, an examination of the everyday rigors of an NFL team’s training camp.

While the action and drama can range from inspiring to maudlin to banal, Americans’ thirst for pro football, particularly a look inside the locker room and at the inner workings of a franchise, has become must-see television for fans, and not just fans of the team featured that year; in the summer of 2017 it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but high-profile clubs such as the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have also been featured.

Launched in 2001, ‘Hard Knocks’ has won 15 Emmy Awards and was so compelling in 2010 with the New York Jets – coach Rex Ryan’s verbose (often curse-filled) and over-the-top personality a highlight – that HBO invited them back for 2011. The Jets declined, no other team stepped up, and the series was scrapped for that season.

It came back in 2013 with the Miami Dolphins after the NFL strongly suggested it would assign a team to do the programme if no one volunteered.

“Series such as ‘Hard Knocks’ and `24/7’ were well-thought-out ideas that since their respective debut have been reinvigorated to ensure the appeal does not diminish,” HBO’s Nelson says.

“The average audience the past three seasons of ‘Hard Knocks’ has been 3.9 million viewers per episode.

"That viewership number, coupled with the national press acclaim and industry awards, gives us enough evidence that this type of programming is excelling on our platform.”

Attracting audiences

Reality sports programming isn’t limited in the US to the likes of HBO and Showtime. It is becoming much more prevalent on the offshoot channels for the major free-to-air networks CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC. For those stations, it is as much about filling airtime as it is about attracting audiences. 

Particularly intriguing is what the US Olympic Committee (USOC) has come up with. 

The organisation invited 91 athletes seeking Olympic berths to a made-for-TV tryout camp at its base in Colorado Springs. Those athletes could be from any sport but could wind up qualifying in another.

That number was reduced to eight who qualified for national team camps for rugby, track cycling, bobsleigh and skeleton.

Athletes making the final cut were revealed at the end of a reality show aired in August on NBC Sports Network called ‘Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful’.

Another 23 athletes were invited to continue training in their sports.

“We’ve always believed in `talent transfer’ – high-level athletes who may not make it in one sport but could try out in another,” Alan Ashley, the USOC’s director of sport performance, told The Associated Press.

“But when you think about all the college athletes out there, this could be a stepping stone for people to think about this in a different way.”

Thanks to the series, America gets to watch the athletes’ trials and tribulations as they attempt to progress to the national team, and maybe even the medals podium.

“It was interesting, is the best way to put it,” says Josh Williamson, a former lacrosse player who wound up being invited to the US training camp for bobsleigh.

“Sometimes they’d have to do a bunch of takes to make it look good on TV. The difference is, in athletics you only get one shot at it.”

Hopefully, with most sports reality TV, there is an air of veracity. Sure, the athletes are aware of the cameras on hand, and when they play to those cameras it becomes almost rehearsed theatrics. But when the action is spontaneous, it can make for riveting theatre.

“The big takeaway from the recent broadcast is how our fans embraced the athlete stories, the competition, and reward of working toward a spot on the Olympic team,” says Brian Gordon, senior vice president of marketing and media for USOC.

“A feature of the show was having the athletes train using the same facilities and expert staff as our elite athletes. It was an authentic window into the world of Team USA Olympians and Paralympians.”

The list of USOC reality programming that has been sponsored and appeared either on the NBC networks or across Team USA platforms is growing. Series include ‘Next Olympic Hopeful’ (sponsored by 24 Hour Fitness); ‘Working Out With Team USA’ (KT Tape); ‘Cooking with Team USA’ (Kellogg’s); ‘Hometown Stories’ (Hershey’s); and ‘Winter and Summer Champions Series’ (Comcast).

“When we work with partners such as KT Tape,” Gordon says, “and they have gold medal winner Kerri Walsh Jennings on their roster, it creates great synergy between all parties. KT Tape is leveraging both their personal sponsorship and USOC partnership to create outstanding branded content.”

Stimulating programmes

What makes for interesting or even stimulating reality sports programmes? Gordon hits the mark with his description, knowing full well that if it is boring or phony or, worse, schlock, not only will it not work commercially, it will reflect negatively on those involved. That includes whichever outlet airs it; in the case of premier cable channels, by sending potential subscribers elsewhere.

“Must haves also include compelling storylines, and we are lucky to have a lot of those in the Olympic movement,” Nelson explains. “We have created a marketing campaign called ‘every moment matters’ that highlights the road these athletes take to the Olympic Games.

"The content we create is designed to promote and provide our fans with compelling content outside of the two weeks of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and to show what it takes for the athletes to prepare for a single event and the biggest sporting moment of their lives.

“Whether an athlete is an established star or an up-and-coming hopeful, they have a compelling story to tell. And the totality of our platforms allows us a year-round opportunity to promote all aspects of the Olympic and Paralympic movements and the Team USA brand.

“From the competitions … through the training leading into those competitions, and including all the support the athletes receive from (national governing bodies), families, communities, the USOC and sponsors away from competition, there is a huge amount of content out there, and almost all if it hasn’t been seen by our fans before.”

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