Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Fake Real: Authentic Storytelling in Sports

Uniform's Ben Potts looks at how authentic storytelling has never been more relevant for sports brands

Ben Potts, head of film at Uniform delves into the need for authentic storytelling for sports brands. 

I’ve been keenly watching the journey in branded sports content over the last few years; big name sports brands like Nike, Adidas, Asics to the sports retailers like Intersport, JD Sports, Footlocker and many more. 

To get a sense of where sports brand filmmaking needs to go, it’s important to look at where we’ve come from. There has been a dramatic move away from the polished and ostentatious commercial video content towards gritty, naturalistic fare - reflecting a general shift in audience taste. The ‘mixed-media’ style has become prolific; quick-to-produce, high quality but low budget, fitting today’s bitesize culture. It’s a volume game.

The idea of throwing a shaky iPhone shot into the edit for a sports ad may have seemed alien five years ago, but now we’re buying presets to make our beautiful 8K footage look like it was shot on a mid 90s camcorder.

But this ‘perceived authenticity’ has a potential shelf life. Elements of the authentic approach are starting to feel contrived and we’re beginning to see tropes. How many more times can we watch the against-all-odds athlete who ‘self-actualised’ through sheer determination or see a group of kids in a third world country playing street football in bare feet? 

Over the last couple of years we have been responsible for producing and delivering storytelling content for Bleacher Report Football, part of the Warner Media conglomerate that won the rights to show UEFA Champions League football in the US. It was a big deal and that means, they needed big numbers to justify it. 

We worked hard to create original, authentic hooks - Neymar’s life around the stories of his tattoos, even interviewing his tattoo artist in the back streets of Sao Paulo. We even ventured into the mind of Pep Guardiola. But viewers now vote with their clicks, and the content that focused around real fan stories was proving more popular online than films based around sports personalities. It was apparent that the me generation wanted to see themselves reflected in the content they watched. 

A piece focusing on ‘The World's Craziest Soccer Mom’ scored 563k views on Facebook alone, versus 32k for Neymar. This gave us our principal focus for the rest of the season; to produce a series of films highlighting the intoxicating power of sports culture through unexpected stories featuring unconventional characters - to reveal the fan voices that would otherwise go unheard.

A brand that is consistently getting it right is Nike. Uploads to their YouTube channel follow a broadcast-like cycle. Content ranges from fun to profound, featuring uplifting everyman stories, behind-the-scenes product films, tastemaking and insight from sports personalities, training tips and colourful ads. This is all packaged in a house style that is young, loose and immediate. And none of the uploads are older than one year. These films are for now. Occasionally, you’ll still find an exploded view of a floating CGI shoe but it’s becoming increasingly rare, which is ironic given that these types of films are probably the reason I subscribed in the first place. The content on there now is arguably more compelling. Flying shoes are cool, but Tinker Hatfield breaking down his design inspiration is fascinating.

So, how can the authentic approach continue to develop in order to sustain itself? Sports brands now need to tell relevant emotional stories, surprise viewers and avoid cliche. They need to find, capture and share the gritty, bizarre, real and raw realities that their audience can relate to.