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Will a Drive To Survive docu-series work in MLS?

Box to Box Films turned Formula 1 into a global phenomenon, but can they bring their magic to MLS? Or will the league and Apple TV insist on another infomercial like last year's Messi Meets America?

Usually y, Major League Soccer’s 2024 Media Day doesn’t break major news. The press conferences generally serve to refocus our attention on the upcoming year in advance of the preseason training that kicks off at the end of the month. But earlier today, the league dropped a bombshell during the Media Day Roundtable when MLS and Apple TV announced that Box to Box Films, the production company behind the superb Formula 1: Drive to Survive, will partner with the league to create a docu-series that will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass.

In many ways, this is bigger news than when the league announced Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami CF last summer. 

While Messi might be a legit global superstar who brings an audience with him wherever he goes, Box to Box Films mints global superstars who remake the sporting landscape: Drive to Survive turned the well-regarded but niche pursuit of F1 into one of the hottest events on the planet. Now the question is, can the do the same with American soccer?

We are the 53%

Since the debut of Drive to Survive in 2019, the growth of Formula 1 has been staggering. You can link the sport’s growing audience directly to the series. According to a piece Bill Shea wrote for The Athletic last year, 53% of self-identified fans in the US “credited Drive to Survive as a reason they became viewers of F1 races.

The viewership of both live races and the Drive to Survive series have climbed steadily over the years (save for the COVID-shortened 2020). According to The Athletic, the average race day viewership was 554,000 in 2018, the year before the series launched. In 2022, the average viewership was 1.21 million.

In 2019, a total of 288,286 viewers watched Week 1 of the series on Netflix. In 2023, that number was 569,884, plus another 73,613 streams of the previous seasons for a Week 1 total of 643,497.

It’s no coincidence that in-person attendance at Formula 1 events is also growing. In 2019, a total of 4.1 million fans attended 22 races. Last year, 6.5 million fans attended 24 races. Eight of the all-time Top 10 best-attended races were held in the last three years.

Those are numbers MLS dream about. But more than that, Drive to Survive made Formula 1 cool. Last year’s race in Miami saw 270,000 people pile into the Autodrome, and the city was transformed into a days-long party that was Super Bowl meets Burning Man meets Davos. None of that could have happened without Drive to Survive.

MLS vs F1

Which brings up the question: How will Box to Box Films translate that Drive to Survive magic to MLS?

Formula 1 operates in a fishbowl: There are 10 teams with a total of 20 drivers, and they move from venue to venue like a traveling roadshow that flies private. There are about 40 people Box to Box has to track, including the team’s directors and owners. The entire cast of characters is contained at the same location for every competition.

MLS is a sprawling mess by comparison: There are 29 teams with 18 players on the matchday squads and up to 30 players on the roster, and they play all across the United States and Canada. Include the head coaches and owners and that comes to more than 900 people, and that’s not including the players who might join during the transfer windows.

Box to Box could afford to be a fly on the wall when they started covering Formula 1 in 2019, gathering footage and seeing which characters and storylines would emerge. They likely won’t have that luxury with MLS. While it’s entirely possible that they will embed 29 ace documentary teams with the clubs, it’s more likely that they’ll handicap which teams to follow and who to focus on.

One sure bet: They’ll put their best people in Miami and follow Messi.

The fact is that none of this could happen without Messi. His star power guarantees a massive audience, which in turn assures a large payout for the league, Apple TV, and Box to Box Films.

But by banking on Messi, Box to Box Films could miss out on the magic of a parity league like MLS, which saw the highly entertaining Columbus Crew lift the MLS Cup against all odds last year. Not a single pundit predicted that Columbus would take the title last year – Philadelphia Union was as close to a consensus choice among the soceratti – and nobody predicted a breakout year for Supporters Shield-winning FC Cincinnati. If Box to Box Films documented the 2023 season, we’d have a series that focused on Philadelphia, Austin FC, and Lorenzo Insigne’s Toronto FC.

Who will be the Güenther Steiner of MLS?

That brings us back to a point made at the beginning of this post, namely that Box to Box Films doesn’t just follow around stars, it mints them.

In the first year of Drive to Survive, it was clear that Box to Box Films didn’t have the cooperation of Lewis Hamilton, who was then the world’s leading driver by a wide margin, or of the glamor teams such as Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari. They give the minimum amount of access required of them, but they mostly opted out.

That forced the producers to spend more time with the characters who were willing to go on camera, including the wildly entertaining Güenther Steiner, then the principal of Haas, and Daniel Ricciardo, then the lead driver for Red Bull. Steiner was the breakout star of the first year, a German-speaking Italian from Süditrol who was the strange, intelligent, goofball uncle we all wish we had. Hamilton won the World Drivers’ Championship, Mercedes-Benz won the World Constructors’ Championship, but those triumphs were a sideshow to the audience enjoying screen time with Steiner, Ricciardo, and the others.

Season 2 saw Red Bulls principal Christian Horner use the series as a way to manipulate the competition. Horner is as Machiavellian as they come, and he recognized the value of making statements to the camera so provocative that they would make it into the final cut, and into the heads of his opponents. That upped the ante for the entire sport, and now even the standoffish Toto Wolff, billionaire Team Principal of Mercedes-Benz, is playing along with the rest of the characters and giving us memorable on-camera moments.

Drive to Survive isn’t popular because of the racing acumen of Max Verstappen, the reigning World Champion, but because of the human (and inhuman) moments with Steiner, Horner, and Wolff, to say nothing of the arrogance of Lance Stroll, whose billionaire daddy bought a racing team for him, or Yuki Tsunoda, the Japanese driver who doesn’t have a mental filter, and will comfortably talk about the nice poop he just took.

Will we get these kinds of moments when Box to Box Films starts following MLS teams? It’s hard to say. Box to Box Films has an excellent track record — they’re not only behind Drive to Survive, they produced Maradona, arguably the best soccerball film ever made.

But MLS and Apple TV are less promising partners. Messi Meets America, the six-part documentary aired by Apple TV, is nearly unwatchable. It’s essentially an infomercial for the league produced by SMUGGLER, one of the most important ad agencies in the world. There’s little the series that wasn’t already found in MLS and Inter Miami press releases issued last year.

The financial stakes and logistical concerns will put pressure on this unnamed project to play it safe. But we hope that Box to Box Films will be true to the formula that brought them success, and that they’ll smoke out the odd, insightful, entertaining characters who are surely found in the locker rooms, owner’s boxes, and executive offices of this league.

We want to see the Steiner and Horner of American soccer, not another scripted shareholder presentation from MLS commissioner Don Garber. Let’s hope that Box to Box Films can pull it off, and that MLS and Apple TV will let them.