Before the 2019 U.S. Open starts, ESPN wants to take viewers back to 2018’s.
In the premiere episode of the new series “Backstory,” the sports-media giant will delve into tennis ace Serena Williams’ controversial skirmish with umpire Carlos Ramos last year. Her back-and-forth would result in a point penalty and a loss of game that contributed to her ultimate defeat by challenger Naomi Osaka in the 2018 women’s final.
“We wanted to do more stories that get behind the scenes, get to that next layer that people don’t often see or rarely see,” explains John Dahl, vice president and executive producer, ESPN Special Projects and Original Content, in an interview.
The executive likens “Backstory” to a mix of the network’s long-running “30 For 30” documentary series and a detective working his or her way through the “cold case” file. “Backstory” debuts on Sunday, Aug. 18, at 1 p.m. eastern on ABC, with re-airings on various ESPN networks. Future episodes will come out as the reporting is ready, says Dahl, and will center on such topics as the story of baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the bizarre online hoax that besieged former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
Don Van Natta will lead viewers through each episode as he tries to help them understand what happened and why. In the first episode, he interviews Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou – and more than a dozen people overall (and two dozen more off camera).
The genesis of the series came when ESPN did a “30 For 30” on the last days of former Indiana Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, a legend in the sport who was undone by an investigation into why good players were leaving his program. “I was kind of emboldened by the film and how it turned out,” says Dahl. “I wanted to do more stories. I could really do a whole series, going back to a story where people only know the headlines or the outcome, but they don’t know how it all unfolded.”
Many observers have wondered about ESPN’s commitment to long-form journalism as it moves forward under a new chief. The recent imbroglio involving the political musings of Dan Le Batard sparked the conversation anew. But Dahl says ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro was among the people backing this project.
“Backstory” has no set time slot or network perch. It’s airing on ABC because open slots at ESPN were hard to find with lots of live-sports commitments already in the works. But executives wanted to get the episode out to coincide with interest in this year’s U.S. Open. The schedule for future episodes, he says, is “a matter of inventory and availability.”
Viewers shouldn’t be looking for another version of “30 For 30,” says Dahl. “There is an extraordinarily careful way we build each story around Don/ He’s that relatable reporter who goes back into the story and tried to peel it back to the other layers,” he says. The other program, he says, “isn’t built around a person investigating. It’s more just about telling the story. This is really a great vehicle to display Don’s journalistic talent.” Van Natta, a Pulitzer Prize winner, worked as an investigative reporter for The New York Times before joining ESPN in 2012.