I admit I am binge-watching ESPN documentaries during this pandemic. There are worse addictions than the endorphin-boost and motivation that sports victories and defeats (and lessons learned) can offer to the quarantined soul.

Two of the more recent offerings in the ESPN documentary and 30 for 30 longform storytelling installments are the Michael Jordan biopic, “The Last Dance,” about the Chicago Bulls winning seasons and LANCE, the Lance Armstrong story.

The Last Dance: The Untold Story of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, is really must-see TV for anyone in marketing public relations, sports promotion or just plain storytelling. You will cry when athletes to this day still cry about Jordan’s father James being murdered when he pulled over at the NC and SC state lines to take a short nap in his car – only to be carjacked by two 18-year-olds and shot in the chest, left to float in a nearby river at age 57!

LANCE is a story of avarice and a fall from grace. Here is a great Bicycling magazine story last week that suggests it’s time for the world to really let go of the Icarus-like fall from grace of Lance Armstrong and his hubris, truly:

Writer Joe Lindsay talks with filmmaker Marina Zenovich to try to make sense of the story.

In hoping to better understand the production decisions and creative work that drove these programs, and how to capture viewer or reader (or browser) attention for longer form story delivery, I recently attended the Esomar Client Summit At-Home Version. The Amsterdam-based European Society for Opinion and Market Research had leading directors of research from the greatest brands in the world sharing their case studies.

ESPN’s Renata Policicio stole the “at home” show.

In fact, she is so compelling that ESOMAR actually provided ESPN with two sessions to teach specific skills in longform storytelling. You can register with ESOMAR and see the top market researcher discuss data-driven creative campaigns on June 18 once again:

Here is how ESPN creates script treatments and story lines for its documentaries. All sports dramas and docs must be:

  1. Conversational
  2. Provocative
  3. Substantive
  4. Humorous
  5. Relatable

ESPN VP of Research Policicio says that relatable stories “connect with you at every level.” ESPN is successful because it shows the personal side and often human failings of our heroes. The stories are aspirational in that they “inspire us to achieve our potential.”

ESPN writers play to an “emotional immersive experience” (which is why the storyline is so compelling) and infuses drama and passion in every story.

The substance of the episode is why it matter to someone, personally.

Episode eight’s dialogue was the key motivator for me and I may just make it my own motto: “Winning has a price,” Jordan said. “And leadership has a price. So, I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right… Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less.”

Policicio goes on to say that the writers make things provocative by creating “a surprise or a bold statement that can shake people up.” ESPN writers and producers debate these provocative story features. According to their research, provocative content has seven times (7X) more impact for Gen Z. “Taking a stand matters to them,” she said. That’s 7X!

ESPN is unafraid to tackle the darker realities of the sport hero’s world as they leave no stone unturned with Zenovich’s focus on Lance Armstrong dark personality demons.

For humor, ESPN’s research and writing staff believes all humor must be genuine and light. They find the ESPN “First Take” and other news shows (buddy anchors) to be the perfect platform. Policicio played a few takes from Stephen A. Smith’s “playful”  interactions with sports stars and co-hosts

“Chemistry matters,” says VP Policicio.

 The conversational elements of ESPN let the viewer join the sports world as if it is a two-way conversation meant just for them. The hardest thing for all of us is to bring all five of these creative structural elements together.

She said ESPN draws heavily in informing these stories from:

  • Sports Psychology
  • Intensity of the Fan Base (Armstrong invented Tour de France fans!)
  • Emotional Connections

Policicio reveals that “fandom is really a psychological connection to the team. It drives connection with other human beings and even helps people with self-esteem.”



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