The Boston Red Sox are already under a microscope, but the team figures to be even more so during the upcoming season — though not for the reasons fans might typically expect.
A project that has been in the works for the last three years is coming to fruition, as MLB and the Red Sox announced Wednesday a Netflix documentary crew will be following the club for the 2024 season. The production is scheduled to air on the streaming service in 2025. Additionally, Netflix will air a separate documentary on the 20th anniversary of the 2004 Red Sox, who broke the organization’s 86-year World Series title drought.
Filming for the yearlong documentary is set to commence in spring training, which begins next week. Unlike other sports documentaries such as HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” it won’t be formatted like a weekly tick-tock of the team’s wins and losses but rather focus on the human interest element of players’ lives.
“A lot of people, even in the athlete community, don’t fully understand what it’s like to play 162 games, it’s unlike anything in professional sports,” Red Sox chief marketing officer Adam Grossman told The Athletic. “That’s one piece, and then the other piece is that there are people behind these uniforms. They’ve got interests and thoughts, there’s an endurance test that they go through (in season) and there’s a whole world out there that may not be on display in the same way they think that it should.”
While it might seem odd for a documentary crew to choose to follow a team that isn’t projected to be near the top of the league standings, the idea has been in the works since 2021 when executives from Netflix met with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred as well as Red Sox principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner, who has had a lengthy career in television production.
The initial talks did not involve the Red Sox but were more focused on a way to use Netflix’s global platform to grow interest in baseball. At the time of the initial talks, Netflix had just produced a wildly popular documentary on Formula One racing called “Drive to Survive” that created immense interest in the sport.
The Red Sox were adamant they would not be receiving any financial compensation from Netflix for the project.
“It truly is a marketing initiative,” Grossman said. “This is something that there’s no monetary component changing hands and this is really about getting more people under the tent through telling the stories in a way that they’ve never been told before on a really important and growing medium.
“What we are seeing across sports is there are more people out there that may be interested in sports and players, even if they didn’t grow up with the game,” Grossman added. “Part of that is the platform and the tools that are now at their disposal to bring people into a tent. And some of that is at Fenway Park, some of this will be on Netflix. Again, at the core, fans want championships, an incredible ballpark. We do, too. It’s just now, there’s just more opportunity to cast a wider net.”
After debating for a year different documentary concepts that focused on featuring multiple teams throughout one season or following several individual players, MLB presented the idea of focusing on just one team. The Red Sox were among a few teams considered and in September 2022 the idea started to take shape with a Zoom call that included Netflix executives, proposed director Greg Whiteley, who’d worked on previous Netflix documentaries “Last Chance U” and “Cheer,” in addition to people from the Red Sox side including Grossman, manager Alex Cora and CEO Sam Kennedy.
It’s no secret baseball’s popularity has waned over the last two decades with the NBA and NFL surging. The latter two leagues have done a superior job at marketing their players so that they have become household names. The pace of the game in baseball, though quickened last year, has a lot to do with its image and popularity compared to football and basketball, but marketing the game differently has also been a focal point. Bringing the game to a wider audience while focusing on the human element rather than the X’s and O’s seemed like a good way to go about it from MLB’s perspective.
“We said, ‘We don’t have to do this, but there’s nothing that will be bigger than this opportunity,’” Grossman said about the debate on how to approach the Netflix project.
Getting player approval and insight was paramount. Last April, once they had an idea of how they might format a potential documentary, Gabe Spitzer, Netflix’s vice president of nonfiction sports, traveled to Boston along with Whiteley, the director, to meet with Cora, Kennedy, Werner, several people from the Red Sox’s baseball operations including assistant general manager Raquel Ferreira, as well as about 10 players.
“We had no clue what was going to happen coming out of that, except that we’ve got to provide the opportunity, and if the players shut it down and say like, ‘There’s no way,’ then we’ll move on. But that wasn’t the case,” Grossman said.
Nick Pivetta, the Red Sox representative in the MLB Players Association, shortstop Trevor Story and outfielder Rob Refsnyder were key in bringing the idea to life from a player perspective, who might be involved and how much, as well as how to protect the players who didn’t want to have as much of a front-facing role in the project.
“These guys they’ve done a really nice job of objectively assessing this, looking at the positives, understanding this is a little different and have tried to make sure that the team feels included and knows about what’s coming and there’s been ongoing dialogue,” Grossman said. “Raquel, in particular, has had a major role in continuing that discussion with the players, from the organizational standpoint. So, it’s been a healthy process to evaluate something that we’ve never done before.”
There’s no mandate from the team or Netflix on player participation. Some may choose to be main characters with their trials and tribulations throughout the season documented and others may not. The filming and storylines will be fluid.
“Not everybody wants to be a household name,” Grossman said. “Everyone’s got different focal points or different areas and so we’ve talked to the director a lot, just saying, hey, not everyone is going to be up for it. There may be a sweeping shot of the dugout or in the clubhouse. That’s one thing. Following somebody home is a very different thing … if people don’t want to participate, we’re not going to force them. And he doesn’t want that either, but we do need to provide a lot of access, which we will.”
There’s some anxiety in bringing a documentary crew into the clubhouse mix. There’s no telling throughout the season what kind of news surrounding the team might emerge. It’s no secret the Red Sox have been struggling with a frustrated fanbase and have produced a less-than-stellar product with three last-place finishes in four years. Managing all of that and making sure this project isn’t a distraction during the season will be key.
Grossman said these were all things that were debated and discussed.
“We don’t know who the characters are going to be, we don’t know what the storyline is going to be,” he said. “I think by definition when you can start thinking it through, that of course there’s going to be some thought of like, man, ‘Are we sure?’
“The opportunity for this is really compelling, number one, and number two, it’s really important if we are going to grow the game, collectively, players, league, the Red Sox, we have to do these things,” he said. “It’s not just a cool thing. It’s really important.”
Grossman likened the documentary to debuting the City Connect uniforms in 2021. The yellow and blue jerseys were a huge deviation from the traditional red and white home uniforms and it was a big risk unveiling the bold color scheme, even with the ties to the Boston Marathon. They were nervous about the reception, but ultimately dove in on it.
“That ended up being embraced by the fans and our players,” he said. “We think, in the same mindset, this will be as well.”
There will undoubtedly be a faction of the fanbase upset by the documentary, which might be viewed as a distraction for the team. But time will tell how it will all unfold. It’s clear this project wasn’t taken lightly and has been worked on for the last few years.
“I think it’ll be really interesting for those who are core fans and diehards, but also for those that may have never seen a baseball game before,” Grossman said. “I think that’s from a platform standpoint what makes this so interesting for the players, for the game, for us as well.”
(Photo: David Butler II / USA Today)