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Documentary Success Without Netflix? The Tennis Channel Thinks It Can Pull It Off

The cable channel's decision to produce a documentary without the streamer's support is a unique case study in media consolidation.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pose at Wimbledon 2008

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Sports Emmy Awards may not be the most obvious focal point for the future of television documentary production, but Tennis Channel contender “Strokes of Genius,” which commemorates the 10-year anniversary of a historic match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, provides an intriguing case study. A fast-paced retelling of the nearly five-hour 2006 showdown between the champions of the sport, it marks the first time that the network has produced a nonfiction feature in-house for wide release, with a serious Emmy campaign to boot. (Sports Emmy voting runs February 22 through March 8.) But it almost didn’t happen that way.

“We had a lot of outside interest,” said Tennis Channel president Ken Solomon in an interview at the U.S. Open, shortly after the documentary first aired last fall. “Obviously, people knew the story.” However, the decision to adapt L. Jon Wertheim’s 2009 book required access to reams of archival footage and high-profile interviews that major hubs for documentary production — including Netflix — couldn’t access as well as the Tennis Network itself.

“We talked to a lot of them and said, you know, you’re just not going to pass the hurdle of all the hand-holding and work you’re going to have to do, so let’s do it ourselves,” Solomon said. “The big thing was storytelling related to compressing the time of this nail-biting match that lasted a whole day. It’s not just a series of highlights.”

The Tennis Network airs thousands of hours of matches per year and sometimes plays older broadcasts, providing in-house resources that other companies would have to search for. “You need to know where the libraries are, who the people are, need clearances to go into stadiums,” Solomon said. “It’s so complicated that we would’ve ended up doing all the work for the producers anyway.”

The life of the eventual production, directed by British filmmaker Andrew Douglas (“The Amityville Horror”), provides a unique example of media consolidation. While famous tennis showdowns have been revisited in recent cinema through the dramatic reenactments of narrative features “Borg vs. McEnroe” and “Battle of the Sexes,” Douglas’ nonfiction treatment delivers a riveting contrast between Federer’s balletic movements and Nadal’s more aggressive physicality. The footage crystallizes the appeal of the sport — and, by extension, the brand that the Tennis Channel is eager to sell. “The mission was potentially getting to people who didn’t know which end of the racket to use,” said Solomon.

That made the prospects of a Netflix deal untenable. “We liked Netflix, we talked to them, but they really wanted to be exclusive,” Solomon said, referencing the streaming platform’s binding licensing deals, which typically last years. “We just wanted it as broadly distributed as possible.”

The movie eventually received a platform release, starting on the Tennis Channel and followed by primetime slots on The CW, BBC, and local syndicators. Eventually, the documentary was available on iTunes and the Tennis Channel’s own VOD platform. It’s a notable contrast to many consumer-facing sports documentaries, which often go to festivals and sell off theatrical and home-video rights. By staying in its lane, “Strokes of Genius” has enabled the network to experiment with an avenue for production and distribution that other niche cable entities may explore in the next chapter of competing streaming platforms around the corner. “If you’re a little more flexible, you have a much better chance of being a winner,” Solomon said. “If you’re too rigid, I think that’s risky.”

The Tennis Channel previously ventured into original productions with “The Barnstormers — The Birth of Professional Tennis,” a more insider-focused approach to the sport that received less circulation, and has also acquired original productions. But in the wake of “Strokes of Genius,” Solomon said the network has started to consider producing more work for wider audiences. “There is such a tremendous learning curve in the kind of work that we want to do when it comes to documentaries,” he said. “We have no shortage of ambition.”

The 40th annual Sports Emmy Awards take place May 20, 2019 at the Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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