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Is Netflix’s “Sunderland Til I Die” the future of sports documentaries?

How one middling English soccer club was able to turn loss and defeat into hope–and a compelling story.

Is Netflix’s “Sunderland Til I Die” the future of sports documentaries?
[Photo: courtesy of Craig Sugden/Netflix]

Imagine for a moment that when the 2017 Brooklyn Nets finished last in the NBA, they got demoted to the G-League, lost major TV deals, saw revenues plummet, and the team had to fire half its staff.

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Unlike American sports, finishing last in English professional soccer isn’t just a major hit to a team’s ego, resulting in maybe a fired coaching staff but also the reward of a higher draft pick. When your team is kicked out of the entire league, there are major consequences that reverberate far beyond the pitch. After Sunderland Football Club was relegated from the Premier League in 2017, it lost tens of millions in TV revenue and was forced to lay off more than 90 people.

Sunderland Til I Die, an eight-episode documentary series that premiered in December on Netflix, chronicles the club’s first season in the Championship, England’s second-tier league. What starts as an ambitious project to gain promotion back up to the top tier quickly becomes (spoiler alert) a dramatic downward spiral. While the story of the team’s plight on the pitch is compelling, the doc’s real power is how it puts the club’s trials into context through the hearts of its fans, and the very real effects of relegation on its employees and the community.

The series is produced by Fulwell 73, the production company behind The Late Late Show with James Corden, and its spin-offs Carpool Karaoke and Drop the Mic. When Netflix came calling looking for a behind-the-scenes series to rival Amazon’s popular All or Nothing: Manchester City, little did they know that, aside from ardent West Ham fan Corden, the company is made up of lifelong Sunderland supporters. And while Sunderland are a historically successful and popular club in England, for most of the last decade it has sat somewhere between the middle and bottom of the Premier League standings.

Not exactly anyone’s idea of a first choice when you imagine Netflix looking for its first English Premier League documentary.

Fulwell 73 executive producer Leo Pearlman says that while they did consider approaching clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea, they saw more compelling story potential in the northern English industrial city. Ellis Short, an American-born but U.K.-based real-estate investor who bought the team in 2008, agreed to participate in the series in the hope of making enough soccer brand magic to attract some potential suitors to take the club–and its considerable debt–off his hands.

Pearlman says that was exactly their argument to Short to get him to grant access. “We needed him to be on board for this project at a time when the club was teetering on the brink, and it was definitely not necessarily the best decision to let the cameras in,” says Pearlman. “They took a risk in doing so, and part of our pitch to Ellis was, ‘Look, there are 135 million eyeballs on Netflix. So far they’ve done Juventus and Boca Juniors [giants of Italian and Argentinian soccer, respectively]. If you can add Sunderland to that list, that’s quite a coup.'”

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[Photo: courtesy of Craig Sugden/Netflix]
It’s obviously a sports story, a clear-eyed tribute to true fan culture. But it’s also very much a business tale. Loss after loss on the pitch is coupled with crippling debt, bad investments, mismanagement, and other pitfalls that companies in any industry will recognize.

What makes Til I Die such a breath of fresh air is the sheer amount of access producers were given–everything from transfer negotiations to a meeting between a player and a sports psychologist. Its biggest strength is that it manages to tell a truly dramatic story, as opposed to coming across as little more than an eight-part Nike or Adidas ad.

“Football is an incredibly closed shop,” says Pearlman. “In American sports there is a world now where these access docs exist, and everyone kind of accepts it and understands it. Whether that’s individual players or management. In soccer, that is absolutely not the case. Yes, you get the odd documentary, but as is clear if you watch the Man City one, the Juventus one, or the Boca Juniors one, they’re all very manicured, polished pieces of corporate content. This wasn’t that.” The result is a show that sometimes comes across as The Office: Sunderland, airing the club’s dirty laundry in front of the camera.

But the main characters in the series are its fans and community, and as it ends on a (somewhat) high note, the series becomes a masterstroke of sports marketing. Sunderland got its badly needed new ownership, and now millions of people who never heard of Sunderland Football Club have learned of it through this story.

Craig Howe, the CEO of digital strategy agency Rebel Ventures, works with clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Juventus, and agrees that Sunderland was a curveball when it comes to Netflix’s first foray into the Premier League. But that goes for Sunderland as well. Because the streaming service doesn’t disclose viewership numbers, it’s tough to measure direct impact, with the closest measure so far being the global media coverage of the series, as well as its theme song by local singer-songwriter The Lake Poets hitting number four on the U.K. iTunes charts. “I don’t think we’ll know for a few years, to see the true impact it’s had on the club,” says Howe.

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On the pitch it may have ended with (sort of a spoiler alert!) another devastating relegation to English soccer’s third tier, but it also culminates in new, optimistic ownership. Veteran football club owner Stewart Donald led a new ownership group, and he put renown marketing maven Charlie Methven in place as Sunderland’s new executive director.

Methven says that agreeing to participate was easy since it really only covered their first few weeks running the club. But deciding to film for a second season, which is ongoing right now even though Netflix hasn’t yet announced plans to pick it up, was more complicated. “We took the view that part of our strategy is to broaden the appeal and audience for Sunderland AFC,” he tells me. “And if we’re going to spend a lot of time and money trying to express that passion, history, and intensity to the market, why wouldn’t we do this? This is free and an opportunity to express the club to a very broad, global audience who in many cases had never heard of [us].”

[Photo: courtesy of Craig Sugden/Netflix]

Howe, the digital strategist, says there is significant potential for Sunderland, whether in attracting more sponsorship, or a higher caliber of players. “The ultimate win here is if this becomes a tool they can use to contribute to getting back to the Premier League,” he says. “I’d love for it to create a case study example that you can build a halo effect for your brand, and that can create a better performance on the pitch through the revenue you’ve generated through efforts like this, but it’s just too early.”

Methven and Donald have quickly built a reputation for their transparency with supporters regarding club business–and for trying to involve fans in as much of it as possible. When 35,000 seats in the stadium needed replacing, the owners rolled up their sleeves and invited fans to do it with them.”People may have thought we were crazy, but thousands took part, and afterwards during games, they can look around, point to a row of seats and say, ‘I did that,'” says Methven. “That feels like a true sense of ownership.”

That’s exactly the sentiment Donald and Methven are hoping to continue to showcase to the people of Sunderland–and, thanks to Netflix, the rest of the world. The power of this documentary series, as awkward and painful as it may be at times, is in its transparency and truth. By embracing that, Sunderland has managed to accomplish what all brands are striving for–real emotional connection. “What you see in Sunderland Til I Die is that Sunderland fans are actually the central part of the drama,” says Methven. “They’re actually the whole point of the exercise. The one thing we’re determined to do as we run the club is to make sure they’re absolutely at the center of what we do.”

It’s a long way back to the Premier League–and its $100 million TV revenues. But if Sunderland can make it happen and keep the cameras rolling, the club will have its Hollywood ending.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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