Data: A Deep Dive Into Sports Documentary Viewership

Variety Sports Summit Documentaries
Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform; Last Chance U/Netflix; Boogie/Focus Features

Variety’s “Sports and Entertainment Summit, Presented by City National Bank,” to be held on July 14, will include the panel discussion “Visionaries in Sports Programming,” where creative leaders in sports content discuss the state of the industry.

Variety Intelligence Platform senior media analyst Gavin Bridge will be moderating that panel, partnered up with leading insights firm Maru Group to shed some light on how viewers perceive sports documentaries. The findings below will be discussed during the panel, which you can watch by registering here.

Maru Group began by sizing the U.S. population who describe themselves as sports fans, given they would be the most likely group to watch a documentary based on sports. Overall, 3 in 5 U.S. adults said they were sports fans, with this slightly higher among those under 54, dropping to around half of those 55 or older.

Maru then asked all survey takers if they watched sports documentaries. As with general sports fandom, the proportion doing so declines with age, with the number of those 55+ watching sports docs half that of the 35-54 group.

Note that 56% of sports fans said they watch, with only 6% of lapsed or non-sports fans doing so. For that reason, VIP+ has declined to show a breakout in the analysis between sports and non-sports fans, as sports fans are overwhelmingly the audience for this content.

Sports docs tend to be viewed on an occasional basis, but there is a subset of viewers who watch frequently. Among all adults, around 1 in 4 regularly watch sports documentaries, rising to 1 in 3 of those 18-34. As may be expected from the trend already seen in Maru’s findings, only 1 in 10 of those 55+ report often watching this content.

We then had the survey respondents react to a series of statements pertaining to watching sports documentaries. What was of interest here were the numbers reporting they prefer documentaries to watching the actual sport, with this peaking among younger viewers.

There may be a few reasons behind this, one being something VIP+ uncovered in the special report “Sports’ New TV Formula,” which found younger fans frequently more likely to engage with sports leagues in ways other than direct viewing.

Another reason may be the clip-based nature of documentaries. Younger generations flock to other media in a short-clip fashion, and a documentary can show the most exciting highlights of an individual, team or season at a fast pace. They also can tell a story from the field in a much more dramatic fashion, as evidenced by the strong agreement across all age groups that sports docs are great at portraying drama.

A sports documentary can boost interest among viewers in the sport as well. Whilst we saw only a small proportion of non-sports fans saying they watch sports docs, this does suggest that a good documentary can help grow the audience. It may also reenergize some fans who are lapsed or feeling jaded with their fandom, suggesting there is more to a good sports documentary than simply entertaining fans.