30 for 30 and ESPN’s Quest for Cultural Consecration

Curator's Note

30 years after its founding, ESPN is a lot of things. It’s an ever-expanding network of television and radio stations, the host of the world’s highest-traffic sports website, and even the theme around which a chain of restaurants—the ESPN Zone—is organized. Despite its many forms and seeming omnipresence in contemporary popular culture, there is one thing that ESPN is not, or at least was not until fairly recently: an outlet that produces art.

Sure, there is undeniable artistry to the network’s innovative production practices and the clever wordplay that has transformed anchors like Chris “He…Could…Go…All…The…Way” Berman and Stuart “Boo-ya!” Scott into household names. But ESPN’s productions are not typically considered to be art and those who create them are not typically considered to be artists. To reference the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, ESPN is not part of an “artworld.” Its content and producers entertain and inform but they do not enrich, or at least are not commonly understood to perform this function.

ESPN has recently been working to enhance its cultural pedigree by allying itself with film and recognizable filmmakers. In 2008, it changed the name of its subsidiary production company from ESPN Original Entertainment to ESPN Films. The rebranded subsidiary’s most ambitious project thus far is 30 for 30, a series of 30 documentaries made by 30 different filmmakers to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary. All of the films concern events in the world of sport that occurred between 1979 and 2009. The series premiered in October 2009 and will wrap up this fall.

The clip I’ve included features a trailer for the series that provides what I think are some provocative indications of how ESPN is currently using film and filmmakers to build and assert its cultural prestige. The trailer displays several of the directors ESPN commissioned for the project—a group that includes Brett Morgen, Barry Levinson, Ron Shelton, and Albert Maysles—commenting on their contributions to the series. The directors, who are captioned with their names and the title of their most famous film, discuss in general sport’s capacity to tell dramatic stories and explain in particular their personal relationship to the topic they chose to explore. Interspersed with the directors’ commentary is a graphic of a film strip with the 30 for 30 logo on it accompanied by the sound of a projector. The trailer, or at least these components of the trailer, positions ESPN as a media outlet that encourages, and indeed enables, these artists to tell their stories. It also suggests that these stories are most dramatically and artfully conveyed through film—a medium with which ESPN has not traditionally been associated.

What most intrigues me about this trailer is how ESPN, via ESPN Films, advertises its relationship with recognizable filmmakers and uses the medium of film as a signifier of art and culture. While these efforts serve strategic institutional and branding purposes for ESPN that distinguish it from other sports media outlets, they also speak to the persistence of authorship and film as indicators of aesthetic prestige within the context of cable television, and popular media more generally. They work to broaden and amplify ESPN’s significance in contemporary media culture. Simultaneously, they reinforce a very traditional conception of what constitutes art and what qualities television productions in general, and sports television in particular, ought to possess if they are going to be treated as art.

To be sure, much else can be said about this series, the manner in which ESPN packages and markets it, the branding and programming functions it serves for this ever-expanding media institution, and how it fits into the broader tradition of sports documentaries.


I think your right on w/r/t to how the network is positioning this series. It is so interesting how ESPN leans so heavily on cinematic signifiers to signal this shift from news and coverage to "art": the use of the word "films," the sound of the projector, the image of the celluloid strip in the interstitial bits—even though the majority of these docs are not shot on film, and rely quite heavily on video from the last three decades of sports broadcasting.

That said, having spent the better part of the last year watching sports films, I have to say that many of the entries are quite remarkable: Steve James' (Hoop Dreams) Allen Iverson doc is one of the best films about racism in America (not just sports) I've ever seen. Brett Morgen's (The Kid Stays in the Picture) June 17, 1994, about OJ Simpson's Bronco ride, is wonderfully impressionistic, and Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's The Two Escobars is a devasting look at the issue of sport and nation. These are films by high-caliber movie makers that would probably not be otherwise made or distributed.

What is more, ESPN Bill Simmons, who came up with the concept for the series, has been interviewing all of the directors on podcasts. While this is surely a form of promotion for the works, it nevertheless provides a fascinating look at the directors' making-of processes, as well as a welcome bit of transparency to the whole enterprise.

I've always been fascinated by the relationship between art and sport, and the frequent divide between the areas.  I think there is more overlap than is given credit - down to the color combinations of the uniforms or the phenomenons of celebrity-athlete and celebrity-artist.  ESPN's choice to refer to artistic filmmaking really does force a discussion of the relationship between the two fields, as you point out. 

I think that art has also always been used to document sport and highlight its developments and achievements (i'm thinking of the documenting of the Greek warriors).  By illuminating the connections between this project and sports relationship with art, I think you are recognizing the most recent instance of this intersection.

As you both mention, I think the discussion of the people behind the scenes is a particularly interesting one and I hope it continues. 

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