Sports are inseparable from the stories they tell. The games we love are even better when combined with human interest, sweeping narratives, scandals, intrigue and heartwarming tales of endurance. It's that layered backdrop outside the lines that keep us interested and sticks with us as much as the athletic achievements performed at the highest levels of competition.
Paddy Cotter of Underdog Fantasy firmly believes this. As does Tim Livingston, the company's VP of content. Even more, the two are of the mind that there's an audience searching for them. Nuanced, complicated stories with coverage that goes the extra mile.
Thus, Underdog Originals was born, a YouTube channel currently consisting of six shortform documentaries covering topics like Brett Favre's welfare fund scandal, Zion Williamson's Nike sneakers exploding when he was at Duke, and James Dolan's facial recognition technology at Madison Square Garden. Cotter is the host, producer, editor, and every other title you can think of. While his background and passion lie in the longform documentary space, Cotter helped Underdog build out its network of daily sports shows shortly after joining the network last year. He and Livingston felt there was something missing from that everyday formula. Originals was the answer.
"There’s an infinite amount of extremely interesting sports stories," Cotter told The Big Lead. "Sports just breeds unbelievable stories. Having this format gives me a chance, every week to two weeks, to become obsessed with that story. To become obsessed with how Nike responded to Zion’s shoe ripping. I can become obsessed with the text messages Brett Favre was sending the governor to try and secure funding for a volleyball facility. I can become obsessed with these things, write a script around it, shoot it, edit it, and market it in that short time window."
Cotter has an never-ending mine of ideas to utilize, from recent events to tales lost to the passage of time. Working to his advantage is that Underdog does not have an official partnership with any of the big sports leagues and thus does not have to worry about potentially damaging relationships in the pursuit of digging up truth those leagues might prefer to stay buried. That's part of the reason why Livingston believes Originals can stand out.
"The opportunity for us with Originals is to have a completely unfiltered, authentic, documentary take on a lot of these stories," Livingston explained. "Just tell the story. Just tell the f--king story. Just being able to say what happened is the real opportunity here and not having to worry about anything except the truth is the opportunity. We can just focus on whatever we think is interesting as sports fans and tell the truth and tell it in a compelling way. It’s a really awesome thing as a creator when the business is just truth."
Authenticity is the word that came up the most in conversations with Livingston and Cotter. The audience they're seeking is the kind of audience who will only accept the truth, and nothing less.
"Originals is a good brand play for Underdog because they want to be an authentic player in the space," said Cotter. "They don’t want to fall back on some of the tropes you see in the industry of really dumbing the content down, going after the lowest-common denominator of sports fan. I’m the kind of sports fan that loved Sports Illustrated, opening up and reading the stores. This connects to that kind of sports fan in a way that Underdog very much likes going after."
"We think there’s a big sports audience out there who is tired of the talking-head sports discourse," Livingston said. "With ESPN or Fox or other sports networks, they have to fill 24 hours. I get it. But for us we think there’s a big opportunity with intelligent sports fans who want to be spoken to in a different way. Who want content that makes them smarter. They’re entertained but they’re learning something every time they sit down to take in a piece of content. With Originals, we're giving that to them in a very digestible way."
At this juncture Underdog's audience is largely made up of daily fantasy players. The network's biggest draws are its shows hosted by former athletes turned media personalities, most prominently Steve Smith Sr. and Gilbert Arenas. Livingston and Cotter will tie in those personalities to Originals when they can; by viewcount, their second-best video to date features Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells recounting the Portland Jailblazers era from their own perspectives.
Hearing straight from the athletes' mouths plays well into the theme of authenticity Underdog is pushing in their content. In the long-term, Livingston said, Originals would become something like Netflix's Untold series-- a place where stories can be told truthfully, on a smaller scale, with no big market affiliations that may hinder the pursuit of that authenticity.
But that's down the road. For now, Originals is mostly a one-man operation starring Cotter. He'll never run short of content; he's been keeping a notebook for years with a list of documentary ideas and purchased the entire collection of The Best American Sports Writing before launching Originals. Cotter says he combined those two resources into one giant Beautiful Mind-esque Excel sheet. The immediate goal is to keep drawing from that well. To keep telling stories in a truthful and authentic way. And to keep distributing them to a growing audience in search of that content as the pickings grow slimmer across the industry.
"Originals came about because A) that’s my skillset: original storytelling, and B) this idea that there’s so many great sports stories, just by having a daily sports show approach, we were missing," Cotter said. "We were missing context, evergreen aspects of these stories. That became the basis for Originals.
"Let’s have an area where we can put the best stories in sports. Put it on a platform that people want to watch on, for free. And let them enjoy these stories."