Narrative Has Juice: Lessons Learned From O.J.: Made In America

By Adam Grossman
Even with the NBA Finals, U.S. Open, UEFA Euro 2016, and the Copa America all occurring this week, the leading sports story in the U.S. is arguably the documentary O.J.: Made In America. How can a five-part, 7.5+ hour series airing on ABC / ESPN chronicling events that largely happened 20+ years ago have a dominant role in today’s sports conversation?
One of the critical factors to achieving success in the sports industry is narrative. In particular, constructing enduring narratives is one of the main ways sports organizations can connect with fans, media, and sponsors. O.J.: Made In America contains many of the key elements that make for an enduring narrative. What makes the documentary compelling is conflict and star power. The most chronicled elements of the conflict are the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the trial where O.J. Simpson was accused, and controversially acquitted, of committing the crime.
O.J. Simpson clenches his fists in victory after the jury said he was not guilty in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in a Los Angeles courtroom as attorneys F. Lee Bailey, left, and Robert Shapiro, right, look on. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Daily News, Myung Chun, Pool, File)

However, what has attracted so much attention and critical praise to the documentary is how the film explores the racial, social, and economic conflicts before and after the trial occurred. The film builds on the star power of the central characters – O.J. Simpson and the city of Los Angeles. For O.J., the documentary chronicles how he navigated the complexities of being a celebrity during such a racially charged period. In particular, Simpson saw himself as a post-racial celebrity. He believed that people saw him not in terms of the color of his skin but simply as “O.J.” In addition, the film looks at the long-simmering conflict between the Los Angeles African-American community and the local police / government officials. Simpson’s stature within the city of Los Angeles has been a critical catalyst for thesuccessful initial run of the documentary.

What should the takeaway be for sports organizations from the film? Not every sports organization is going to have these types of characters or storylines. However, the success of O.J.: Made in America shows how narrative differentiates content in a crowded environment. The sports industry is a unique environment where conflict is at the heart of every competition. More specifically, teams or athletes are competing to win a game, series, event, or championship. In addition, sports organizations often have stars that can attract audiences, including players, coaches, general managers, and owners. Each can be highly visibility entities that attract audiences to a team, league, competition, or an event.
Narrative is particularly important when it comes to corporate partnerships in sports. One of the key differentiators between sports and other advertising channels that companies evaluate for their advertising spend is narrative. Many companies’ most important customers are also fans with strong emotional connections to sports. Sponsoring a sports organization enables many companies to better engage with customers in ways that create incremental revenue growth and provides an increased ability to meet their brand objectives. Most other advertising channels often do not have the ability to generate the organic narratives and authentic connections that sports organizations create for companies’ customers.
Narrative has been a driver of sports sponsorship and at the heart of the corporate partnership decision making process for years. The sports organizations and athletes with the strongest narratives frequently have the greatest corporate partnership revenue. What has changed is that companies want sports organizations to show how narrative drives quantifiable results. For example, the first episode of O.J.: Made In Americawas the second-highest rated primetime program last Saturday night. This is a clear example of how narrative drives audience engagement for ABC and the companies that bought advertising inventory for the program.

Sports organizations need to demonstrate similar results for narrative to be an effective competitive differentiator. Television ratings are not the only place where audience engagement metrics can be calculated. Digital metrics such as the number of unique visitors, time spent on page, and click-through rates show how narrative can drive attention and traffic. Social media metrics such as likes, retweets, and follows demonstrate how engaged audiences are with stories. The most compelling narratives will create lift with these metrics in ways that other partnership or advertising opportunities are unable to achieve. Communicating these results to corporate partners will enable sports organizations to maximize sponsorship and advertising revenue.

Narrative is always a tool sports organizations can use to create competitive differentiation in a crowded media, entertainment, and advertising marketplace. Using quantitative metrics to show the impact of narrative is the best story that sports organizations can tell to their corporate partners.

Adam is the CEO and Founder of Block Six Analytics. He is also a lecturer for Northwestern University’s Masters of Sports Administration and the co-author of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders For A High-Performance Industry.
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