'The Cost of Winning': TV Review

The Cost of Winning
Courtesy of HBO
Entertaining, but lacking depth.

A Baltimore Catholic high-school football team is at the center of this four-part HBO docuseries.

A good story that surely could have been told better, or at least with more depth, HBO's four-part (each part a half-hour) docuseries The Cost of Winning looks and plays like a Quibi version of Netflix's Last Chance U.

Every segment is too short, too many really interesting questions go unanswered and there's a selectivity to storylines and featured figures that, at times, becomes head-scratching. But taken entirely in and of itself, The Cost of Winning is a slight but generally satisfying sports doc. It's an entertaining placeholder for those who like this sort of thing and maybe a gateway amuse-bouche for those still skeptical about the bellowing coach/inspirational prospect/die-hard community genre.

The big-name production team is led by former NFL star Michael Strahan, but The Cost of Winning is actually co-directed by Rob Ford (Shut Up and Dribble) and Maurice Holden (Tiger at 30), examining the nationally ranked football program at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. A venerable Catholic school with a literal prison in its backyard, surrounded by a neighborhood in which the sound of gunshots no longer causes anybody to even flinch, St. Frances boasts a team, the Panthers, that became a surprise football power with the arrival of Biff Poggi as head coach. Poggi, an online sensation a couple years ago after doing formal interviews in a ripped-up tank top, brought the resources from a wildly successful career as an investment fund manager to St. Frances and, paying for coaches' salaries, travel opportunities and housing, was able to recruit players from around the city and even neighboring states.

Ford and Holden followed the football team in the fall of 2018, with St. Frances eying a so-called "national schedule," traversing the country to play the nation's top-rated schools in part for the competition, but in larger part because the Panthers were booted from their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association conference. The official reason for the severing of ties related to "player safety" and the other schools being at a "competitive disadvantage," borne out by St. Frances' cumulative 342-50 point spread against MIAA opponents in 2017.

The story of the high school football team that was too good for local schools to want to play them earned St. Frances a lot of publicity and prompted suppositions that race played a factor; other schools in the conference come from predominantly white Catholic schools, while St. Frances has a 200-year history as one of the nation's first schools to begin teaching Black students. You can tell this is something that attracted the directors, and you can also tell this is something that the directors realized very early on that they wouldn't be able to illustrate, much less prove. Is racism baked into all of these institutional interactions? Gracious yes. But is there a competitive disadvantage when one school has a multimillionaire benefactor willing to foot any imaginable bill and lure a roster of starred national recruits while no other school has such a benefactor? There has to be, right? And for Poggi and every other person affiliated with St. Frances to slough it off and suggest other schools should do the same borders on absurd and is definitely disingenuous — which might be why most of the talk of the MIAA ceases after the first half-hour or two.

What follows is a much more conventional and non-contentious series tracing the Panthers' 2018 season, one that takes them on regular jaunts from Florida to Los Angeles in quest of the mythical high school national championship.

With four episodes of half-hour apiece there's no time for depth, but there's enough time at least to warm to players like Demon Clowney, second cousin to an NFL star and seemingly heading to LSU, or ridiculously fast Michigan-bound running back Blake Corum. There are also less decorated players like Ace Colvin, who left a starting position at another school and now finds himself struggling to get on the field at all. On the coaching side, it's easy to embrace Messay Hailemariam, who immigrated from Ethiopia when he was seven and only played football because he was taken to a tryout expecting soccer. And it's very easy to be at least intrigued by Poggi.

It's just as easy, though, to think that the directors are barely getting to any of the most interesting facets of Poggi's past, especially the detailed origins of his financial success, but also the completely excluded fact that he came to St. Frances after a brief tenure coaching under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. To me, it's perplexing to spend so much time talking about the money Poggi has poured into the program without stopping to ask why, with a key donor with pockets this deep, the Panthers have no practice facilities at all (they do some drills on asphalt surrounded by vacant buildings where characters on The Wire might have dumped bodies). And why their home games are at a local park with jury-rigged lighting? What math went into the various uses of Poggi's fortune?

The perspective on the players making up the team is also limited. There are gulfs between the different neighborhoods certain players live in, the stretch of Virginia at least one recruited player lived in and the cramped apartment several players live in under Hailemariam's watch. This is where it would be useful to have a clearer sense of the comparative economic situations of the other MIAA schools. Boiling that conflict down to black/white and the team down to the poor Black kids trying to outrun bullets and the gruff-yet-lovable white coach buying them plane tickets is good TV, but it's reductive TV. [An earlier version of the review referred to players talking about their NFL fathers, but that was a "vision" exercise with the kids projecting how they want to be remembered by their own children. It's their dream. Not their reality. Apologies for that confusion.]

You won't learn much about St. Frances as an actual school from The Cost of Winning, nor about how their specific neighborhood in Baltimore feels about the team, but you'll probably laugh a little, cheer a lot and maybe get teary at a few points. And if you're like me, you'll wish it were two or three times as long so that its full potential could be realized.

Two episodes air Tuesday, November 10, and Wednesday, November 11, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.