The scene was a shell-shocked Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had just stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement at age 29.
The video production team quickly sprang into action, shooting reaction interviews with head coach Frank Reich, general manager Chris Ballard, new starting QB Jacoby Brissett and T.Y. Hilton, Luck’s best friend after entering the league together in 2012. Those were all edited and then laid down on top of a track of foreboding music.
The video cuts to the coach and GM trying to buoy the spirit of Colts fans by adopting a “Next Man Up” approach at training camp. “Everyone makes a unique contribution on this team. Yet everyone is replaceable,” Reich notes.
Was this HBO Sports shooting another edition of the Emmy Award-winning Hard Knocks? No. Instead, it was the team’s own in-house digital/video/audio platform telling the Horseshoe’s story from the inside out.
“Affectionately we call ours Light Knocks,” said Roger VanDerSnick, the team’s chief sales, and marketing officer. “But our crew is embedded in training camp much like the HBO team is. I think you’ll see our stories maybe a little less sensationalized, a little more measured. A little more appropriate for the tone and approach of the Indianapolis Colts.”
As the NFL embarks on its historic 100th season, teams like the Colts are increasingly looking to tell their own stories as digital documentary film-makers.
Launched in April, the new Colts Productions has rolled out four original content series this year. Together, they’ve generated over 24 million impressions — and boosted the team’s YouTube subscribers by 40%. As a bonus, Bud Light and Xfinity have signed up as sponsors.
The four-part Behind the Colts training camp series is the most Hard Knocks-like. There’s also the five-part With the Next Pick, detailing the team’s journey to the 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville. Plus Colts Life and Colts Forged, two episodic series that tell the personal stories of players like Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker.
No, the team hasn’t hired famous actors like Liev Schrieber to handle the narration ala HBO. There’s no Jon Gruden of the Oakland Raiders growling that he’s into “f—–g nightmares.”
Today’s NFL fans want more access to players, coaches and front office execs across digital and audio platforms. This season, the Colts made a “strategic decision” to tell their story in a way that goes beyond the usual jargon, VanDerSnick said.
“We really want to think about space as storytellers. If you get to our web site you’ll see long-form production that’s of very, very high quality. That goes behind the scenes of the training camp. That profile individual players. That talk about Deon Cain, who’s coming back this year from a pretty significant knee injury last year,” he said. “For us this is new. We’re really pleased with some of the results we’re seeing with our long-form content. It’s much, much different than talking about X’s and O’s.”
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This kind of commitment doesn’t come cheap. To make Colts Productions a reality, the team had to hire 10 new staffers, including video expert Dave Knickerbocker, a former Chicago Blackhawks executive who came aboard as vice president of content and production a year ago. The Colts now boast a state of the art studio and production department.
This year’s hiring spree nearly doubled the size of the Colts’ media operation, making it one of the largest in the state of Indiana. Trying to take an HBO or ESPN 30 for 30-like documentary film approach is no easy task. But given results so far, VanDerSnick thinks it’s working.
“It’s a little easier to do 60-second videos that talk about the Xs and Os in a game. But to really get into the meat of a story, and bring that to life about a player, about where they came from, what they’ve had to go through to get here, that takes a real commitment in terms of resources. And we’ve done that,” he said.
The Colts are not only NFL club ramping up their video storytelling.
Over in the AFC West, the Raiders debuted a three-part series called More Than Rookies, which delves into the lives of the team’s first-year players as they don the Silver and Black.
“I think both sponsors and teams are trying to provide fans insight that’s non-traditional, that gives them some exposure to the club behind the curtain,” explained Ralph Ockenfels, the Titans’ vice president of corporate sponsorships.
The tradition of the league, and its teams, doing their own documentary work goes back to Ed and Steve Sabol’s NFL Films in the 1960s, noted George Solomon, director of the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.
Think of those glorious, slow-motion shots of footballs spiraling through the fall skies. Not for nothing did Salon call NFL Films the greatest in-house PR machine in pro sports history. The Colts and other clubs are effectively setting up mini NFL Films units with their own organizations.
What’s new are NFL teams effectively becoming “competitors” to traditional TV, radio and newspaper outlets, according to Solomon.
“The teams have become their own media,” he said.