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Netflix's sports strategy focuses on storytelling over live events

Our dearly beloved “Drive to Survive,” which catapulted Formula 1 into the upper atmosphere of popularity, has created a genre of sports documentaries to help other sports like auto racing, tennis, golf, surfing, and cycling.

While Netflix continues to invest in sports, is there more to why they don’t invest in live sports?

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Netflix has not pursued showing live games like many of its rivals but has instead invested in series on professional auto racing, tennis, and now golf.

By the fourth season of Netflix’s documentary series about Formula 1, “Drive to Survive,” ratings and attendance for Grand Prix events and merchandise sales had surged. This prompted Netflix executives to discuss with the show’s producers what other sports could be featured.

Netflix’s latest sports documentary series, “Full Swing,” focuses on men’s professional golf.

It debuted shortly after another sports documentary series, “Break Point,” which focuses on professional tennis.

However, Netflix has yet to plunge into live sports, even as its competitors, like Amazon, dive headfirst into live sports rights. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos shared his thought process: “We’ve not seen a profit path to renting big sports. We’re not anti-sports. We’re just pro-profit.”

Netflix is instead pursuing a more modest strategy, building a sports lineup focused on telling the stories beyond the leaderboard.

Professional golf and tennis are eager to gain access to Netflix’s 230 million paying subscribers and are hopeful of the kind of bump that Formula 1 received from “Drive to Survive.” PGA Tour executives met with Netflix officials in June 2017 to discuss the possibility of a series, but Netflix passed at the time.

“We’ve not seen a profit path to renting big sports. We’re not anti-sports. We’re just pro-profit.”

By the following year, however, Netflix began investing heavily in unscripted television, and a documentary about Aaron Hernandez was a hit in early 2020.

Netflix cameras have been rolling, and men’s professional golf has become a soap opera, with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund investing billions of dollars into the rival LIV Golf.

Over the last year, there have been lawsuits and heated debates over ethics, greed, power, and human rights.

Stars like Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Collin Morikawa, and Jordan Spieth are featured, as are lower-profile players like Joel Dahmen.

Players and executives said they welcomed the crew that created “Drive to Survive” and that their success gave them confidence in the project.

And why wouldn’t they?

F1 viewership in the United States has gone from an average of 671,000 to over 1.2 million since Drive to Survive first premiered while dropping the average age of fans by four years (from 36 years old to 32 years old).

Netflix might be asking itself why it needs to broadcast live sports when it can cut up past highlights to make prestige films that go head-to-head with ESPN’s “30 for 30” or win awards.

In 2018, “Icarus,” the explosive documentary exposing the Russian Olympic doping operation, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature – Netflix’s first feature of any kind to take home an Oscar.

With live sports taking a massive hit in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, Netflix capitalized by moving up the premiere of “The Last Dance.” The 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan’s Bulls was a monster hit.

But with live sports back in full swing (😂 ), what do audiences do?

Take, for example, the most-watched television programs of 2022. The NFL produced 88% of them.

On the flip side, since its release in January, “Break Point” has struggled to find an audience, not once appearing on Netflix’s Global Top 10 and only cracking the Top 10 in three countries: Australia (10), Ireland (9), and New Zealand (10).

The same goes for “Bill Russell: Legend,” which did not make a Top 10 in any country.

Netflix has found itself a successful strategy in producing sports-related content that focuses on the stories beyond the leaderboard.

While the streaming giant has yet to pursue live sports, its investment in unscripted television and documentaries signals live sports’ importance to the cultural zeitgeist.

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