In a sports media landscape teeming full of streaming options, it takes a perfect storm of timing, marketing and sheer luck for a documentary to capture some part of the cultural zeitgeist. Moreover, it’s getting harder and harder to resonate beyond the premiere date, even if a film is distributed by the biggest players in the space such as ESPN or Netflix. Unless it’s a live event that’s enveloped by hot take commentary shows that can carry the conversation for days on end, the audiences are splintered in ways that are still yet to be confidently measured within the media industry.
So when the Sinclair Broadcast Group premiered its newest documentary special, RIVALS: Ohio State vs. Michigan, prior to Thanksgiving, it stood as a test for its still-nascent sports media division in more ways than one. It was the first program to use the full scope of its unique structure across almost the entire United States – its 19 owned-and-operated regional sports networks of Bally Sports, seven affiliate RSN deals, digital channel Stadium, and the Tennis Channel, its linear cable network. And while RIVALS is already unique in terms of content – as reviewed by Michael Grant – it’s also a standout because it’s the first non-tennis show made by TC Studios, the in-studio production house of the Tennis Channel.
With an audience primed for another highly anticipated version of The Game between Ohio State and Michigan, Awful Announcing had the opportunity to speak with Ken Solomon, president of the Tennis Channel, about what RIVALS means for his network, its burgeoning production unit, and Sinclair as a whole.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AA: Of the many possible stories out there, why was this rivalry picked for the first production from TC Studios?
Ken Solomon: The reason we picked this story was that it was actually a test for ourselves. If you get talented producers, and production team, and an unlimited budget, which no one has, you can make a great sports documentary because you get to pick the story. But nobody has an unlimited budget to do these things for nothing and it takes blood, and lives, and tears to get them done. Our point of view was, if we are going to endeavor into this; to try to have an impact in a way that is not happening right now as we get more and more fractionalized with our viewership and less big shots, we wanted to pick the most well-known rivalry – certainly one of the most important and renowned, and one of the most often told stories of a rivalry – and show that we could do it differently. If we could bring something familiar yet very different, that moves the needle on the way people think about rivalries and the way people think about this rivalry. So if we could do it with the most well-known one, then we certainly know we could do it with stories that are less often told.
AA: What is it about the brand of the Tennis Channel that made Sinclair believe it was the place to have an in-house production studio for long-form projects?
Solomon: Right, good question. And it’s not to say that we are the only ones within the company, but we are doing it for a couple of reasons. On this particular story and where it came from, it was actually born out of the last one we did which was called “Strokes of Genius.” That was Rafael Nadal/Roger Federer, and it was really our initial look at rivalry. Different tone and approach. Pretty ground-breaking. Got a couple Emmy nominations and worked really hard on it. (Talk about people that are hard to corral, even though we know them well, pulling that off was no small feat because it was Wimbledon. You think the Wolverines and Buckeyes organizations are tough to penetrate?) The point is that the story was centered on the 2008 Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final that was called the greatest match of all-time, as a jumping off point. We made this thing and said “while we were making it, it was about rivalry through the eyes of that rivalry. And who they are, and what it meant, and what it meant to other people.” We really wanted to explore that more deeply because rivalry is kind of the plutonium of sports that drives us.
But why us? It’s funny everyone thinks of everyone here as just tennis experts, but every executive here came from somewhere else. CBS Sports, Fox, ESPN, studios big and small, everyone here came from other backgrounds, usually other multi-sport backgrounds and came together to perfect how tennis was brought to the public. Second, storytelling, storytelling! Third, we already make this stuff. We’ve been making long-form documentaries in one shape or form for at least 20 years. Whether it is tennis on a regular basis or not, again, storytelling. We are the only national network within this massive media organization. And we are the only ones that do this, that makes long-form documentaries and docu-stories and stuff like that.
AA: What Sinclair is doing is reminiscent of what Fox Sports was in the late 90s and 2000s, where you had the national imprint and all these RSNs. (Note: Walt Disney Co. bought the RSNs from Fox in 2017 as part of its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, but the Justice Department forced Disney to sell them after the sale was completed. Sinclair and Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios bought the RSNs in 2019 through their joint venture, Diamond Sports Group. The RSNs were rebranded as Bally Sports after the casino company purchased naming rights.)
Solomon: Yeah and that really leads to the business side of it. It was organic for the Tennis Channel team and TC Studios. We’re just producers of long-form content and series specials and documentaries and, of course, live sports. We are doing it 24/7/365. We actually have interesting muscles in doing that because it’s a 24/7 place where our team is in-house. We work with DLP Media Group out-of-house and find it best to be partners, but every single day of the year we are constantly producing films and entertainment content of some sorts around the globe.
AA: This is a LOT to put together, and that’s just internally on the business side. Securing the rights and access to talk to these people – former players and coaches, the schools, the Big Ten and its network, famous alums – had to be chaotic.
Solomon: Absolutely on both accounts. Creatively we’re obviously trying to do something different. It was wildly entertaining, not only to people that are hardcore sports fans, the game fans, but the test is creatively opening up the funnel. If you don’t know anything about this rivalry, you walk away totally being into it. Understanding what all the fuss is about all these years that you’ve heard about, but it just hasn’t been able to penetrate. The funny thing is it’s really not about this rivalry, but about rivalries, and using this particular one as an apocryphal example so that when you see the film you’ll understand in a very different way.
And then the question is, why? The why is a bigger picture idea for Sinclair to fill a need and create an opportunity for fans and the business that is sort of becoming increasingly rare, which is getting wide distribution and viewership and an awareness for major pieces of work in sports film like this. The majority of the things that would be in this category these days, or much of it, is being produced for and by the streamers. The issue is that the numbers are relatively small in terms of viewership and it’s not simultaneous viewership. (Sinclair is) packets of simultaneous viewership, a hybrid. On one hand if you do the network thing, you have literally one shot. It’s one play, it was on… how did we do? It’s over in a day. Here we felt that Sinclair, combined with a third-party partner that was strategic, could create exponentially larger scale viewership and awareness for the story itself and the idea.
AA: So how does this strategy look at Sinclair? Is RIVALS an opportunity to create a national program across these RSNs akin to what Behind the Glory was for Fox in the late 90s and early Aughts? What role does your Tennis Channel – as Sinclair’s only national sports cable channel – play in support of the RSNs?
Solomon: It is worth noting that we were the test for Sinclair to see if they could reach beyond the TV station business and everything that goes with the TV station business. It has worked fairly well. It’s been an amazing partnership and given Tennis Channel a life we would have never had. They were the great emancipator for us. So then, how about the RSNs?
The most obvious thing was you have a bunch of skyscrapers in the desert from a programming standpoint. Nothing personal, but that was the strategy that Fox took, which was “we are just gonna leverage the heck out of the live rights.” And that’s not a bad strategy for Fox, but it’s not maximizing the…
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