After airing its final two episodes on Sunday, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” is now complete. The 10-hour documentary about the 1998 Chicago Bulls (and the Michael Jordan-era Bulls as a whole) captivated fans for five straight weeks as audiences try to figure out what to do without live sports. Having a collective experience to gather around — even one that was archival footage — seemed to work incredibly well. It also begs the question of how networks can create more of these sorts of experiences going forward?
On the one hand, well, you can’t. Michael Jordan is a singular entity all his own in modern sports and popular culture, and not every major sports moment has this much unused footage just sitting around for decades. The Bulls and MJ were cultural phenomenons in their heyday, and did not create the same polarized reaction recent dominant teams have across sports. Also, we don’t have sports right now, which ups the level of interest for many viewers.
On the other, though, sports are typically the most collective experience we have as a viewing public. There are exceptions like “The Bachelor” or “The Voice” and similar reality shows. But with fractured TV audiences, it’s rare to see scripted shows drawing tens of millions in the way “Friends” and “Seinfeld” once did (and still do, to an extent). If anything on TV can bring us all to watch something together… it’s probably sports-related.
So even if it’s difficult to replicate ALL of the reasons why people were tuning into “The Last Dance,” there are still some lessons we can draw out for future shows, even with live sports already starting to come back a bit (something that will continue to gain momentum come June).
Most importantly, nostalgia is essential to any experience like this. People have to feel like they were there at the time in question, and have a desire to go back to that time period now.
Look at the positive audience reception for reboots and reunions in recent years. HBO Max believed so much in the appetite for a “Friends” reunion that it was going to bank part of its launch on that demand. Networks also need to know what time period the core audience is nostalgic for. “The Last Dance” called back to a late ’90s time period that is looked at fondly by basketball fans and non-fans alike. iSpot.tv shows that 37.3% of ad impressions during the show’s run came from viewers age 35-54 — who would happen to be the ones that best remember Jordan’s career.
ESPN’s going to be banking on the same group yet again this summer with “30 for 30” documentaries about Lance Armstrong and the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998.
Something Also Has to be New
For as much as nostalgia’s a draw, there needs to be a “new” aspect of the program as well. For this documentary, it was the season’s worth of footage that hadn’t seen the light of day before, and the reactions to it from the current time.
Reunion shows usually provide some sort of nugget people didn’t know before — a secret from the cast, a conflict that’s since been forgiven or a last-second script change that made a famous line. Maybe at the reunion show, the person who played a young child is now married with four kids. That’s not unheard of, since people grow up even after being child actors. But if you haven’t seen the person as an adult in that light before, it’s a reason to tune in.
Social media does make this a bit harder when focusing on more modern subjects. What was an off-camera joke in the 1970s is now a viral Instagram video today. Celebrities and athletes are carefully cultivated brands now, in part because of the success of someone like Jordan.
Be Polarizing… to a Point
As mentioned, one of the things that made the Jordan documentary compelling to a wide audience was the fact that the Bulls themselves weren’t very polarizing. And Jordan wasn’t either, as a player. The questions around Jordan come from his demeanor, his brutal competitive streak and the constant “LeBron James or MJ” questions that pepper the NBA narrative in recent years (for what it’s worth, it’s said that Jordan finally agreed to release the 1997-98 footage after James won a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016).
So if you went into the documentary questioning who Jordan was as a human being, you were probably met with evidence that your skepticism was correct. Had you not thought much about MJ as a person, perhaps you have some questions now. The conflict created between his greatness as a player and his questionable reputation as a person and teammate is what makes for interesting storytelling throughout “The Last Dance.” It also gave us what should be the lasting meme of the show — Jordan reacting to an iPad.
The same can’t be said around some of the more recent “great” NBA teams — or great American sports teams in general. Teams like the NFL’s New England Patriots court conflict due to a boisterous fan base, gruff coach and a history of questionable conduct regarding the rules. Before he won that title with the Cavs, LeBron earned nationwide scorn for joining a superteam with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. Kevin Durant was similarly hated for adding himself to a 73-win Golden State Warriors squad… you get the picture.
There are battle lines drawn by today’s sports-viewing public that just weren’t (to the same degree) even 20 years ago. Jordan and the Bulls were a collective experience for those watching both then and now. Any show or documentary needs to begin with the same wide net as its starting point.
Also, sports or no sports, the inherent conflict of the story should not be the headline — just an aspect of what was overcome to get to success. Speaking of…
Ultimately, You’re Looking to Highlight a Unique Level of Success
The Bulls were the premier NBA franchise for nearly a decade, and Jordan was the best player for more than that amount of time. Shows like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” were ubiquitous aspects of American culture for years on end. The McGwire/Sosa documentary ESPN’s airing next month highlights a race past 61 home runs that captivated the whole country over 20 years ago.
Any show can have a reunion, and you can create a documentary about any person or sports team. But that’s not the goal here. Rather, we’re looking to find programming that embodies unique moments in time and shines a spotlight on a level of success that is difficult to attain. That’s how an audience winds up captivated by something for weeks on end. They want to feel closer to a excellence in that specific moment in time. Effectively transporting them there is a big part of how ESPN or anyone else finds success trying to replicate what worked for “The Last Dance.”
Still, even with that box checked, it’s hard to contend with the likes of Michael Jordan — be it on the basketball court, or apparently, in documentary form too.