The Last Dance and LANCE were moved up on ESPN schedule to feed sports-starved fans
The ESPN series 30 for 30 has become a major player in the documentary space, earning an Academy Award for the 2016 film O.J.: Made in America and an Emmy nomination last year as Outstanding Nonfiction Series.
It's a strong contender for Emmy recognition again this year on the strength of acclaimed documentaries about two of the most celebrated athletes of all time, Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong. The Last Dance, directed by Jason Hehir, looks at the Chicago Bulls' final run at an NBA championship with Jordan as the team's centerpiece; LANCE, directed by Marina Zenovich, goes deep with the disgraced cyclist seven years after he finally publicly admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs.
I'm a sports fan myself, and I know that I was starved for content.
The Last Dance was supposed to begin airing in June, which would have made it eligible for Emmy consideration next year. But ESPN, recognizing sports fans would respond favorably to some new content in the absence of live sports programming, wisely moved up the airdate to April. The 10-part series became a huge ratings hit.
"I'm a sports fan myself, and I know that I was starved for content," Hehir tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "There was a dearth of content out there, not just in games, but any new content in the sports universe."
He attributes the series' success to several factors, in addition to the fix for sports lovers.
"Michael's name... that resonates with people on the other side of the planet. It's not just on both coasts and in the Midwest and in the South here in the States, it's all over the world," he notes. "And also I think that we were blessed with such a rich array of characters whose stories we told. It's a basketball story, of course, but we tried to make it about a family, a dysfunctional family, that came together to achieve extraordinary things."
The series also provided a welcome escape from COVID headlines.
"I think that in such a scary time, nostalgia is safe, it's comfortable, it's a warm place to go back to," Hehir observes. "And this documentary is really a celebration of not just the Bulls and the Jordan era, but of nostalgia, and we tried to imbue this as much as we could with '80s and '90s nostalgia, right from watching the fashion that these guys wore off the court to listening to the music that they were listening to... Nostalgia is a warm, safe place, and [The Last Dance] certainly checked the box."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.