When ESPN put out The Last Dance, it became a true cultural phenomenon, as the 10-part series on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls was appointment television for sports fans and launched a thousand memes that still make their way around the internet.
The apparent takeaway from TV networks is that people are clamoring for multi-part, hours-long documentaries about sports figures and teams, because in the two years since, there has been an explosion of those types of docuseries being put out by just about every sports network and streaming service. There have been some that have been better and more successful than others, but none have come close to making the splash The Last Dance did, and yet networks will not stop trying.
HBO announced a four-part Shaq documentary, airing Wednesday nights beginning 11/23
— Ryan Glasspiegel (@sportsrapport) October 20, 2022
The success of The Last Dance has nothing to do with the format — in fact, I’d argue it was successful in spite of how it was presented — but simply because of the subject matter and the timing in which it came out. When they first teased The Last Dance, it was billed as a chance to see never before seen footage from that Bulls season, an unfiltered look at one of the most iconic teams in NBA history, with interviews from just about every major player involved, most notably Michael Jordan. That was the hook, and it was enough to gain a ton of interest because Jordan almost never talks at length about his time in the league, much less the chance to see the GOAT in practice, where there are legendary stories of his insane competitiveness.
What we got wasn’t even that, it was a Michael Jordan documentary with some ’97-98 Bulls nuggets sprinkled in. Again, this worked in spite of itself, because the little footage we did see of practices and the locker room was great (ex: Jordan bullying Scott Burrell and Jordan pitching quarters with the ushers), and the interviews were all tremendous. That was particularly the case for Jordan, who we never hear from despite him still being one of the most recognizable and beloved athletes in the world.
That last part, in particular, is something that is apparently lost on networks that keep giving the green light to these documentaries. I don’t need a 10-part Tom Brady documentary because Tom Brady talks all the time and is literally still playing. There is no lore there, no tall tales to dive into and figure out what’s real and what’s just urban legend. He has the maniacal competitiveness part of the equation, but without the mystique. The man has a podcast, for god’s sake. The same goes for Shaq, a man we see on television every week, who does a million interviews and also has his own podcast. It raises the obvious question that is not “why the heck are there so many podcasts?”: What more can we really learn about someone who is an open book and talks about their life constantly?
That’s not to say The Last Dance didn’t rehash stories that were told before, but they were at least new for a whole generation of viewers who have a connection to Jordan for a variety of reasons — many of which had nothing to do with basketball — and were spoken about at length by the man himself on camera for the first time. Jordan’s mystique is something few modern athletes have because we get glimpses into their lives thanks to things like social media. He’s also someone people care about across generations, unlike many other athletes from his era or before.
Beyond all of that, The Last Dance was released at the peak of the pandemic sports shutdown, a not insignificant factor in its success. Starved for live sports, this was something new that we could all gather around the Twitter machine for each week and react in live time, providing that communal sports viewing outlet that we missed so dearly. It was lightning in a bottle for a number of reasons, but instead of recognizing that, the takeaway has apparently been that people just love hours-long sports documentaries.
In short, Draymond Green said it best, “They don’t love you like that. You thought you was [Jordan]?”