- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
For a year in which sports were on hiatus for months on end, a surprising number of memorable TV moments since March 2020 revolved around sporting icons.
There was Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, winning his seventh Super Bowl; LeBron James leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their 17th NBA Championship inside a “bubble” at Walt Disney World; and of course, Michael Jordan, who featured in the ESPN documentary The Last Dance at a time when the rest of the sports world stood still.
Just as live sports ratings are surging this year, sports-related film and TV content is in demand. And Tom Brady is among those trying to carve out a bigger piece of that pie. Brady joins Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan and filmmaker Gotham Chopra as cofounders of the media company Religion of Sports, which is betting that there is pent-up demand for access to top athletes.
Founded as a nonfiction company in 2018 with titles like Kobe Bryant’s Muse, a doc directed by Chopra, it’s expanding into new formats, having launched a scripted division and an audio storytelling unit in the past year. And it has used the pandemic to staff up after raising more than $10 million. “We are one of those strange companies that actually grew a lot during COVID,” Chopra says, adding that their “employee base doubled” in 2020. It’s all in pursuit of building “a stronger connection with the audience, with consumers,” Chopra says. “I want Religion of Sports to mean something.”
It’s a vision that CEO Ameeth Sankaran ambitiously likens to a “Pixar for sports,” where the viewer recognizes the programming as being from Religion of Sports regardless of the genre, subject or format.
“Whether you are watching a movie digitally, in the theater, or a short, it all comes together so clearly. You know it’s a Pixar project,” Sankaran says, adding that they want to develop their own “creative essence.”
To help the company establish itself as a consumer-facing brand, it has tapped as its president Adam Stotsky, the longtime NBCUniversal executive who most recently was president of the E! channel. (Chopra and Stotsky met while Stotsky was running marketing for the Syfy channel and Chopra was running Virgin Comics. “Marketing is obviously one of his core strengths,” Sankaran says).
“All these platforms, in order to acquire subscribers and deepen engagement with their audiences, are investing aggressively,” Stotsky says. “There is a huge market opportunity for us to take advantage of.”
And so the company is pushing further into the scripted space with docuseries like Simone vs. Herself on Facebook and the forthcoming ESPN+ doc Man in the Arena, featuring Brady.
Religion of Sports is one of a handful of companies looking to bring sports-adjacent content to market. In just the past six months, former ESPN chairman John Skipper and ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard launched their own company, Meadowlark Media, and former ESPN content chief Connor Schell launched an unscripted studio in partnership with Peter Chernin’s namesake Chernin Entertainment. And those are in addition to the production companies focused on sports content, including entities from ESPN and the sports leagues themselves.
“Streaming providers, vertical sports cable networks and RSNs [regional sports networks] are all going after the same audience and need content to maintain their subscriber base,” says industry consultant Brad Adgate, who cites ESPN’s Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance as the type of hit these firms seek.
At Religion of Sports, execs are betting that their personal relationships — and personal experiences — can convince other athletes and talent to participate, and that buy-in from those athletes, who have included LeBron James, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles, is a differentiating factor. “It’s a really, really noisy marketplace,” says Chopra. “You can create great content, a lot of people do, and it never really resonates. If you don’t have Michael Jordan on ESPN to cut through, it is really difficult to get noticed.”
Strahan says that convincing athletes to participate can be a “delicate balance.”
“We let them know that they can trust us. We are not going to do anything to them that would expose them in any way that we wouldn’t expose ourselves,” Strahan says. “And I think that means a lot coming from Tom, and coming from myself, and coming from Gotham. Because we have been in their situation, and in a lot of ways we still are in their situation and can understand it.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day