Showtime Basketball Succeeding by Empowering Athletes to Be Raw, Authentic Selves

Over the years, Showtime Sports has amassed a library of documentaries, especially about basketball, including Kobe Bryant’s Muse (2015), One & Done/Ben Simmons (2016), Shut Up and Dribble (2018), The Resurgence: DeMarcus Cousins (2018), and Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story (2019).

In an effort to further its documentary strategy of focusing on conversations and issues at the intersection of sports, culture, society and politics while leveraging both premium linear TV as well as social media, Showtime Basketball was born in 2019.

The Showtime Basketball YouTube channel boasts more than 517,000 subscribers and 120 million views since its launch. Complementary Instagram (20.4K followers) and Twitter (4K followers) accounts help drive awareness for the vertical as Showtime Basketball jockeys not only for a seat at the table, but at its head.

“Over time it became clear that because of the NBA’s current place in pop culture, politics and society, a lot of the richest stories and the most fertile conversations are in and around basketball,” says Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza. “… It sounds like a cliche, but it’s actually very much the strategy—we want to be having conversations addressing issues and covering topics that others are not. That is really difficult in a world where podcasts have exploded and you have 24-hour sports stations having all kinds of debates and conversations along with the explosion of scripted and documentary content around the world. 

“How do you do that? We’re looking for those brave, bold, unique voices.”

Two of those prominent voices are Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, co-hosts of All the Smoke. The hit video podcast which launched Season 3 in October and boasts 503K followers on Instagram and 73.5 million video views, features the brash and unapologetic NBA champions who were known as much for their off-court headlines as those on the court during their respective 14-year careers.

Featuring guests including Dwyane Wade, Shannon Sharpe, Snoop Dogg and Jeanie Buss, All the Smoke was named 2021 iHeartRadio Sports Podcast of the Year and is a Webby Awards honoree.

Barnes said he and Jackson will take the show on the road to major U.S. cities in 2022 along with musicians and comedy acts for an All the Smoke evening. The 2017 NBA champion will also be the subject of a 30-minute semi-autobiographical sitcom called The Education of Matt Barnes, expected to debut in 2022.

“When you come to Showtime and it’s All the Smoke and the atmosphere we’re building there, it’s how real-life conversations go back and forth,” Barnes says. “Every once in a while there might be a cuss word or stuff that is eye-opening but it’s real, authentic, it’s from the heart and it’s off the cuff. I think people appreciate it because they know those are the kind of people Jack (Stephen Jackson) and I have always been.

“Showtime gave us a chance and we struck gold.”

While All the Smoke may be the flagship program for Showtime Basketball, the vertical certainly isn’t resting on its laurels. Showtime Basketball released Passion Play: Russell Westbrook on October 15, and will debut Kevin Garnett: Anything is Possible on November 12. The feature-length documentary chronicles the life and career of Garnett, who became the first high school player to be drafted to the NBA in 20 years, paving the way for future legends like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

The documentary also serves as Garnett’s coming out party with Showtime Basketball as the 2020 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame inductee will host KG: Certified, a new weekly podcast centered on education across industries and interests of his spanning sports, music, business and entertainment.

“Showtime was the one that actually got me,” says Garnett, who cited his fandom of Showtime docs Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James and The One and Only Dick Gregory. “I sat down with a couple other potential partners and it just wasn’t the same energy. Showtime let’s me be me, Kevin, and control the narrative.

“I think the reason these things are working is because they’re giving the reins to the actual individual to be themselves and tell the story, which inspires a lot more confidence within ourselves to tell it versus someone telling the story for you. I’m a fan of their work and they understand what I’m actually trying to do.”

Showtime Basketball’s all-star team of talent will also include Paul Pierce, a former teammate of Garnett’s with the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets. Pierce, a 2008 NBA champion and 10-time all-star, will make contributions across All the Smoke, What’s Burnin’ and other areas as the relationship begins.

Pierce will also be utilized for Showtime Boxing content and events including weigh-ins and press conferences then ultimately broadcasts as his individual niche within the Showtime Sports ecosystem is crafted.

“Specifically with sports, fans have become kind of accepting and numb to the traditional content that’s been out for so long—the talking heads, debate television and cookie-cutter shoulder programming around these league (rights) deals,” says Brian Dailey, Showtime senior vice-president of digital programming. “We saw an opportunity to come in with something new and different, fresh, real, authentic. We realized the way these networks have been doing it is not the only way, so why not go directly to the sources, to the guys who have the stories and have played the games? 

“It was to give fans something new, fresh and different while also embracing the way the content world is now. How many touch points could we create with this property spanning digital video, audio, social content? We looked at it as: how do we create a modern franchise? I think we’ve nailed it. It’s been flattering to see others try to replicate what we’ve built.”

Showtime also hopes its digital content released in front of the premium channel paywall will serve as a revenue generator via advertising and sponsorship opportunities; for example, Showtime partnered with DraftKings on a Pick ‘Em style game for boxing events in 2019.

Along with the additions of Garnett and Pierce and their respective programming and content, Showtime Basketball plans to leverage short-form storytelling with 15-20 minute projects becoming more frequent in the new year, according to Dailey. They’re also developing an upcoming documentary in conjunction with Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures highlighting the history and legacy of New York City point guards.

Showtime Basketball also continued its relationship with Allen Iverson and the Iverson Classic, one of the leading All-American games, by entering into a multi-event partnership on tentpole activities including Iverson Classic: Battle in the Bluff hosted by Stephen Jackson.

No matter the subject matter or medium, though, Showtime Basketball will continue to leverage authentic, raw, bold and candid perspectives and storytelling, which they believe separates Showtime from other sports media outlets in a rapidly expanding landscape.

“It is absolutely critical to our strategy in our programming slate that we convey authenticity and candor at all times whether it’s a documentary or something in the podcast space,” Espinoza says. “That we believe is one of our hallmarks.

“For far too long these stories have been out there but they’ve been mediated and watered down through different sources. You get so much better content when you’re going to the source and giving them the freedom to sort of bare their souls and speak candidly.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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