NBC Sports Films’ First Project Will Be About a Player Who Was the Highest-Paid Athlete of His Time But Who Lived So Recklessly That He Later Became Homeless

May 29, 2015  •  Post A Comment

By Mike Reynolds — Special to TVWeek

NBC Sports Films will drop the puck on its first project after Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final next month, but the unit will begin to skate in earnest in 2016.

Borne from NBC Sports Group’s belief in story-telling and NBC Olympics’ Emmy-Award winning heritage, NBC Sports Films will produce documentaries that will air across multiple platforms. The first entry, “Center of Attention: The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson,” bows June 8 on NBCSN, following coverage of Game 3 of the NHL championship.

Mark Levy, senior vice president, original productions and creative, NBC Olympics and NBC Sports Group, said the film about the rollercoaster life of the former Boston Bruins, will be NBC Sports Films’ sole entry in 2015. “We’re looking at about one per quarter, four per year.”

Levy, noting that NBC has produced long-form content and documentaries around the Olympics over the past 20 years, said this was the right time to launch NBC Sports Films.

“We’ve expanded as a sports group. There are so many ways for viewers to consume content and we want to make sure its there when and where they want.” The docs will appear on broadcast network, cable service NBCSN, on digital properties and across its regional sports networks.

Moreover, the programmer’s raconteur roots also was a prime factor in launching the new unit. “Story-telling is a tradition at NBC Sports,” said Levy.  “[NBC Sports Group chairman] Mark Lazarus is a major proponent of maintaining that legacy.”

Unlike ESPN and HBO, which commission films from third-party filmmakers, NBC Sports Films will produce its docs internally, tapping into the talents of a 20-person team, comprising producers, writers and editors. And saving on costs in the process.

“These are not one-off projects — it’s a much wider view,” said Levy. “The advantage is telling stories around sports viewers can expect to see on our platforms,” said Levy, explaining how content gathered for the docs might also be used for related fare. “It’s a more efficient way to produce shoulder programming.”

It’s also a tried and true approach NBC Sports has deployed around the Games.

“It’s how we’ve done things with the Olympics. We’ve shared content that has been used across different forms,” said Dan Fleschner, director of editorial content, NBC Olympics and NBC Sports Group.

Golf Channel, which has aired such notable projects as a three-part documentary about Arnold Palmer and a film on the late Payne Stewart, also has indicated it plans to step up its long-form production in the years to come. Mark and Dan said Golf’s efforts will remain distinct from NBC Sports Films, citing how the network could gather content during its pursuits that could find its way onto Morning Drive or other shoulder programming.

Promotion for “Center of Attention” begins with Game 7 of Eastern Conference Final between New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday May 29 and continues the following night with the decisive Western Conference contest pitting the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks. Digital and social pushes will also be play. A heavier promotion will ensue with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, June 3, ahead of the documentary’s debut after Game 3.

As to “Center of Attention,” the film is narrated by Boston native and Mad Men alum John Slattery and follows Sanderson’s humble beginnings to becoming the highest paid of athlete of his time, when he jumped to NHL rival, the World Hockey Association. Through interviews with former teammates, coaches, friends and foes, including Hockey Hall of Famers Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Gerry Cheevers, Brad Park, Bernie Parent, Harry Sinden and Emile Francis, and Sanderson himself, viewers get an inside look into his eccentric and reckless life. It was one that delved into alcohol and drug abuse and a homeless period, but ultimately features a fourth act fitting of a Hollywood screenplay — Sanderson cleans himself up and becomes a respected financial adviser for top athletes.

Fleschner, who is the senior producer and writer on the film, said it’s “a tale of hockey, celebrity, his fall and redemption. Derek has lived a few lives. An incredible player and character, he became celebrity, before he fell into daze of drugs and alcohol.”

On the ice,  the man known as “Turk” was a great penalty killer — at the time of his retirement, he had netted the most short-handed goals in NHL history. He won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, two Stanley Cup titles and became the highest paid player in all of sports when he jumped to the WHA’s Philadelphia Blazers,

Off it, Fleschner said Sanderson “was running with Joe Namath, who was the biggest name in pop culture in the late 1960s.” In fact, Sanderson was part owner with Broadway Joe in Bachelors III, the Manhattan night club that Namath was forced to sell to retain his NFL eligibility.

Fleschner said the film includes a visit to TD Garden, which is the current stadium of the Bruins — Sanderson’s old stomping grounds at the Boston Garden no longer stands — to see him in a hockey environment.

Although “Center of Attention” is taking center ice for NBC Sports Films this year, Levy said preproduction will ensue for some of the projects on tap for next year. While he wouldn’t supply any specifics, Levy did note there would be a film about the Olympics as the 2016 Summer Games take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The author of this piece, Mike Reynolds, is a veteran media and sports reporter and was most recently the news editor at Multichannel News. You can reach him at mikereynolds300@yahoo.com or 914-320-6532. We appreciate Mike making this original piece available to TVWeek.

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