HBO Sports Goes the Distance
By Bob Fisher
Ross Greenburg is a native New Yorker whose boyhood heroes included such sports icons as Joe Namath, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. As a boy, Greenburg was a fan and an athlete. He played school football with his friend Kyle Gifford, whose father was Frank Gifford, a legendary football player who became a sports commentator for ABC Television. That connection provided opportunities for Greenburg to freelance as a production assistant with ABC Sports while he was still a student at Brown University.
"Sports was in my soul," Greenburg says. "ABC Sports didn't have a job for me after I graduated, so I found a directory with the names of people at television and cable networks with sports departments and started contacting them."
Greenburg landed a job as a production assistant at Home Box Office (HBO) in 1978. There were only two people in the sports department when he produced his first program a year later at the age of 23. During the past 25 years, Greenburg has played an important role in defining and executing HBO's approach to producing and airing sports documentaries that probe under the surface of the headlines.
He worked his way up through the ranks and was named president of HBO Sports and executive vice president of the parent company in September 2000. HBO Sports programs under his tenure have earned six Peabody, 58 Emmy, 21 CableACE and 12 CINE Golden Eagle Awards. In 2003 alone, HBO compiled 21 Emmy nominations for sports programs. To put that into perspective, that total comfortably topped every broadcast and cable network except for ESPN.
The HBO Sports staff typically sifts through some 200 ideas for documentaries each year, with the most interesting ones funneled to Greenburg, executive producer Rick Bernstein and senior producer Brian Hyland. They choose four projects annually.
"Our documentaries use sports as a canvas to present stories about American history," he says. "We look for moments that transcend sports and personalities who are larger than life. It typically takes 12 to 18 months to complete each program because of the tender, loving care we put into them. Production is done by a creative team we assemble that shares our passion for the project. There are mountains of research, a long editing process and an original score. We begin with a targeted air date and back up from there."
Greenburg cites Fists of Freedom: The Story of the '68 Summer Games, an HBO Sports documentary that earned Peabody and CINE Gold Eagle Awards in 1999. "I remember watching the Olympic games in 1968 when John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood on the winners' platform and raised their fists in the air," he says. "I knew it was a statement of protest about how black people were treated in our society, but I didn't understand what motivated them. I knew millions of people shared my experience and millions of others never saw it. Our film explores the subtext of that moment."
Greenburg adds, "We make the effort to uncover hidden gems. It may just be six seconds that no one has ever seen before that bring a film to life. There are mountains of footage documenting most significant sports events. If you search hard enough, you can find those moments, though it isn't always easy."
He notes that HBO researchers discovered that the broadcast networks have scant archives of the first Super Bowl game that the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs played at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1967. It was a time when broadcast news was transitioning from film to a two-inch videotape format. Part of the economic incentive at that time was that videotape could be re-used to record other news.
Greenburg points out that ideas for new projects don't always come from obvious sources. The inspiration for When It Was a Game, a much heralded 1991 documentary about the history of baseball, was sparked when Steve Stern and George Roy from Black Canyon Films discovered a treasure trove of 16mm home movies tucked away in the attic of the home of a former Brooklyn Dodger fan who had a reserved box seat at Ebbetts Field. He recorded compelling color images of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and other athletes who played at Ebbetts Field during the 1950s.
"When I saw those images and spoke with Steve and George, we decided there must be other films in personal collections that captured the beauty, elegance and poetry of baseball in simpler times, and we did what was necessary to find them," he says.
The When It Was a Game trilogy (installments II and III aired in 1992 and 2000, respectively) spans the history of baseball from the 1930s into the 1960s. It was produced by Black Canyon, which is the only independent producer regularly working on HBO Sports projects. NFL Films is another occasional outside resource.
HBO earned a 2001 Emmy for Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team, which stunned the sports world and inspired the nation. The story revolves around 20 amateur hockey players from schools around the United States who defeated a veteran Russian team of seasoned professionals.
"This remarkable sports upset occurred during the height of the Cold War," Greenburg observes. "That in itself evoked tremendous attention in the global media. We went behind the scenes and spoke with the athletes about what motivated them."
Greenburg says HBO Sports currently has a diverse set of documentaries in production. One was generated by a personal experience. Greenburg was sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium prior to the start of game three of the 2001 World Series. President Bush was slated to throw out the first ball. This was just shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, and people were wondering if it was safe to attend public events.
"I expected him to be sitting in the stands, where Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt sat when they threw out the first ball at other world series," Greenburg says. "Instead, the president climbed out of the dugout and marched out to the pitcher's mound with 60,000 people in the stands watching. As I was leaving the ballpark, I high-fived a line of ten police officers I passed. That's when I decided we had to tell the story of Major League Baseball, post 9-11. It's called Half Mast, the 2001 World Series."
HBO Sports is also producing a documentary about Margaret Lambert. During the early 1930s, Lambert was considered Germany's top female high jumper. She was also Jewish. In 1935, the US Olympic Committee sent Avery Brundage to Berlin to decide whether America should participate in the Olympic games in Germany the following year. Margaret Lambert competed on the German team during an event that the Nazis staged for Avery's visit. She won the high jump competition.
Brundage went back to the United States believing that Jewish athletes would be permitted to participate on the German Olympics team in 1936. America competed in the games, but the Nazis kep Lambert and other Jewish athletes off the German team.
"This story has a happy ending," Greenburg says. "Margaret Lambert migrated to England and then to the United States before the Holocaust began. We found her living in Queens, New York, and we brought her back to Germany. There was an emotional meeting with the woman who replaced her on the German team in 1936. George Roy, who's producing this film for us, found beautiful footage of the 1936 Olympics in both Germany and the United States. He and Steve Stern also did a masterful job of recreating scenes in Germany, which emulate the black-and-white film look from that period."
Greenburg says that he has learned to appreciate the urgent need for preserving documentary footage for posterity. HBO Sports has archived thousands of hours of sports history, including footage from China, Iraq, Haiti and many other places around the world where HBO camera crews have documented competitions and background for stories. HBO Sports Archives opened in New York two years ago. In addition to safeguarding the heritage of sports history, the archive is making stock footage accessible to other documentary filmmakers, TV news departments and advertising agencies.
"This job has taught me a lot about humanity," Greenburg says. "I have always known that sports is an important part of our culture. It is a reflection of who we are as a people. It never becomes old news to me. I can see the same film 15, 20 or 25 times and still feel the same emotions that I had when I was eight years old."
Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.