Believeland was Another Disappointment for Cleveland, and ESPN

If I watch a documentary and don’t learn any new information, I get angry. What was the point?

Those were my feelings after finally watching ESPN’s much-hyped Believeland documentary on the history of sports teams losing in Cleveland. Instead of revealing more about the city, it revealed how far ESPN’s sports documentaries had fallen since the 30 for 30 series began.

the fumble reaction
When Bill Simmons initially floated the 30 for 30 concept, it was a direct response to the formulaic nature of sports documentaries, particularly coming from HBO. Yes, the irony is dripping everywhere as Simmons begins his new partnership with HBO.

At the time, HBO’s docs had fallen into a usual formula, with talking heads reflecting on past moments, spliced with archive footage. Sometimes, the source material was so compelling – such as the Miracle on Ice or the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry – that it didn’t matter about the format. However, duds like the boring doc on the UNC/Duke rivalry showed that HBO was stuck in a rut.

It’s the same rut that ESPN now finds itself in. Recent docs have all followed the same formula, with fans, media and participants reflecting on what happened. Believeland felt no different in structure than Trojan War, ESPN’s look at the rise and fall of USC’s football dynasty under Pete Carroll.

Believeland, like Trojan War and others before it, was so disappointing because we never delved beneath the surface. Going into Believeland, you knew that Cleveland had tough losses. Leaving Believeland, you knew that Cleveland had tough losses.

Believeland, though, was extra frustrating because it came annoyingly close to uncovering interesting and unexplored aspects of the city and its psyche.

For example, one talking head makes the claim that Cleveland has a bad reputation nationally because of the losing, while Pittsburgh is buoyed by all of its championships. While that may be true now, the time frame discussed was the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the 90’s, Pittsburgh was a national laughingstock – the Pirates couldn’t afford its players and the Penguins ended up in financial ruin. There was more there, but it was never explored.

Similarly, Art Modell’s move to Baltimore was presented in two ways. His son said Art had given so much money to Cleveland that he was broke, and the fact the city build new arenas for the Cavaliers and Indians but not him was a slap in the face. City leaders, though, said Art was lying and he had plenty of money.

This is a massive part of the Browns’ departure – who was telling the truth? Instead of spending any time investigating this, the documentary moved quickly from this opposing viewpoints to the standard “I was sad when they left” sound bites.

This particular sequence was infuriating because the Browns leaving Cleveland is a seminal sports story. If you’re not able to do it justice, why even broach the subject? It was the most basic way to approach a story. It made me think of the NFL Network’s amazing Football Life documentary “Cleveland ‘95” where they told that story through the coaching staff and front office employees. That was unique and enthralling.

As ESPN pushes its latest project, “OJ Made in America,” they put an original 30 for 30 doc on-demand – June 17, 1994. That title is one of my favorites 30 for 30 entries because of its daring uniqueness. There are no talking heads or voiceovers – it’s 60 minutes of edited live footage from that day in the world of sports. It’s fascinating. It’s engaging. It’s eye-opening.

The initial 30 for 30 series was filled with unique takes and approaches to subjects. They didn’t all work but I always appreciated the chances. The documentary on Ricky Williams, filled with mostly home videos, was tremendous. The saga of Marcus Dupree was essentially a talking head documentary, but seeing the current Marcus Dupree going back to his childhood home or his old high school added a layer to the proceedings unmatched by Believeland or Trojan War.

Part of the problem is that ESPN is trying to tackle broad subjects that have mass appeal to audiences, like USC football or the Duke lacrosse rape hoax. The problem is that sports fans already know the key notes – those documentaries only work if we learn more.

At the end of the day, ESPN’s success will not be determined by the quality of its documentaries. But after building so much brand equity with a stunning first 30 films, the quality of its documentaries have noticeably declined.

The early reviews on the next OJ film have been overwhelmingly positive, so let’s hope the company continues to take the road less travelled on documentaries as opposed to walking the same streets we’ve walked for years.

Follow me on Twitter