- 30 for 30
When Bill Rasmussen started ESPN in 1979 he described it as a network for the sports junky. During its early years, ESPN featured whatever content it could acquire to fill its twenty-four-hour schedule. Tape-delayed broadcasts of Australian Rules football and drag racing were commonplace. The network has since developed into America’s most visible and influential sports media outlet. It is home to a steadily-increasing handful of sister channels, has expanded its operations to radio and the internet, and even has a chain of network-themed restaurants called the ESPN Zone. The ESPN brand has become so strongly associated with sports that in 2003 the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which purchased a majority ownership of ESPN in 1984, re-branded its sports content from “ABC Sports” to “ESPN on ABC.” In 2006, ABC moved Monday Night Football, one of the most popular sports programs in the history of American television, to ESPN. In thirty years, ESPN, which now markets itself as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” has transformed from an obscure cable network into a media empire.
ESPN is not bashful about advertising its importance to sport and media culture. In 2004 it produced ESPN25, a collection of programming designed to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary that culminated with a countdown of the twenty-five greatest sports [End Page 125] moments since ESPN was founded. The network has taken a different, though equally self-congratulatory, tack to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. ESPN’s 30 for 30, which premiered in October of 2009 and will air on the network through 2010, is a series of thirty documentary films made by thirty filmmakers that cover sports-related stories that occurred since 1979. 30 for 30 abandons the “best of” format that marked ESPN25 for a focus on emotional narratives centered around events that were significant when they occurred but have since faded from public memory. Barry Levinson’s The BandThatWouldn’t Die, for instance, outlines the Baltimore Colts marching band’s refusal to cease operations after its team moved to Indianapolis in 1983, while Billy Corben’s The U chronicles the rise of the University of Miami football program (see reviews by Justin Owens Rawlins and Simon Darnell review in this issue).
Like ESPN25, 30 for 30 both comments on the recent history of sport and celebrates the role ESPN played in that history. It also confronts a key institutional and cultural problem with which ESPN has struggled since its development. Although the network is incredibly visible and profitable, it is steeped in sports television’s low cultural status. ESPN has recently attempted to enhance its cultural prestige by associating itself with the medium of film and commissioning well-known filmmakers to direct material for the network. Having already sponsored sports film programming at the annual Tribeca Film Festival, in 2008 ESPN re-branded its subsidiary production company, ESPN Original Entertainment, as ESPN Films. ESPN Films productions are presented as “boutique” programs. They typically air with limited commercial interruption and explicitly foreground their directors. For instance, the 2009 ESPN Films production Kobe Doin’ Work, a highly stylized documentary directed by Spike Lee, opens with Lee delivering an introduction that explains why he made the film. Lee’s authorial presence suggests that Kobe Doin’ Work is not typical sports programming, but the work of an artist. The 30 for 30 series is produced under the ESPN Films umbrella and continues the attempts by the subsidiary to strengthen the cultural significance of the network.
30 for 30’s most distinguishing characteristic is its use of different, and often well-known, filmmakers for each segment, including Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.), Levinson (The Natural), Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens), and John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood ). ESPN gave the directors creative control over the topics they chose to cover and the aesthetic style they adopted.
Furthermore, the programs highlight the filmmakers’ often very personal relationships to the subject matter their respective films engage. Steve James’s No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson examines the racially-charged 1993...