Is Netflix Eating ESPN’s Lunch?

Reed Hastings
Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka via Getty
Dylan Byers
January 14, 2022

Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have no interest in making a play for live sports. The Netflix co-C.E.O.s have stated publicly, and Sarandos has told me privately, that the increasingly exorbitant and often hard-to-justify costs for live rights is money better spent on original shows and films. But that doesn’t mean that Netflix can’t cash in on the massive audience demand for sports. In Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the documentary series about the world’s premier auto racing competition, Netflix has demonstrated that they can drive subscriptions—and even expand the fan base—through supplementary content that, for many viewers, ends up serving as the main attraction. 

Netflix announced this week that they will replicate that model for the PGA Tour and professional tennis. Both series will be produced by Box to Box Films, the producers of the F1 series. And in a lucky bounce for Netflix, their tennis series will kick off with the drama surrounding Australia’s decision to cancel Novak Djokovic‘s visa ahead of the Australian Open.

Netflix is hardly the first media company to cash in on sports documentaries; it was preceded by ESPN (“30 for 30,” etc.) and HBO (“Hard Knocks,” etc.), among others. It’s also not the only new entrant in the field: Amazon, for instance, has the “All or Nothing” series, which has followed several NFL franchises and European soccer teams. And yet, no one seems to be succeeding in this arena and capturing the zeitgeist nearly as much as Netflix. And Netflix’s success here may be due, in part, to the fact that it’s focusing on globally popular sports that remain niche in the United States when compared to football, basketball, and baseball. In the case of F1, the docuseries is so popular in the U.S. that it has dramatically increased demand for the sport itself. As The Guardian recently reported, overall ratings for the most recent F1 season were up more than 40 percent in the U.S., and the competition added an estimated 73 million fans globally last year. F1 has responded to this demand by adding a second U.S. race, in Miami, starting this year, and there are rumblings about a plan to start a third one in Las Vegas.