A piece in this week's SportsBusiness Journal is nominally about how HBO Sports has lost its preeminence in the sports documentary biz, and sure enough, it has gutted its in-house doc unit in recent years. But it's heartening to realize that even as the former biggest player scales back, the sports documentary scene is healthier than it's even been. And it's definitely not simplistic to say we've got ESPN to thank.

"It was when Skipper took over [in 2005] that ESPN really made the commitment to documentaries," said NFL executive Ron Semiao. "He didn't want HBO by default to be the leader in this space. He thought ESPN should be a leader in the sports documentary category. He was the one who gave the authorization to invest in that genre. It's paid off handsomely."

Because it's interesting to see, and also because it's a good illustration of just how damn good some of those docs were, here's SBJ's chart of the most-watched 30 For 30s.

We Live In The Golden Age Of Sports Documentaries

These are respectable numbers, but not particularly great ones. And that's where ESPN's major contribution to the doc landscape lies: in the "investing," as Semiao puts it.

Sports documentaries are the prestige TV of journalism, the longform of broadcast. They win awards and respect and everything else a media company could want, but they don't get ratings or make money. It took a company on as firm financial footing as ESPN's to decide it was smart to throw cash at talented producers to create things that could never pay for themselves. And it took the sway of John Skipper and Bill Simmons and Connor Schell to convince the rest of the company that the intangible rewards were worth the outlay.

So, yes, sometimes it's good that there's a sports media company with more money than it can spend.

ESPN's second legacy on the doc scene is that it was willing to hand the keys to nontraditional creators. Instead of HBO's in-house crew, which made a bunch of very good pieces with lots of gravity that all looked and sounded similar and never let you forget that they were HBO Sports documentaries, ESPN hired unorthodox producers and directors, the types who were able to bring fresh sensibilities to stories aimed at sports fans, who already demand certain levels of style and cinematics from their sports television.

Michael Bonfiglio, who directed "You Don't Know Bo," was involved in "Some Kind of Monster," one of the greatest music docs of all time. Jason Hehir, who made "The Fab Five," cut his teeth on boxing and MMA full-access documentary series. Billy Corben, director of "The U," comes from the world of true-crime docs. Bringing in big Hollywood names like Ron Shelton, Peter Berg, Ice Cube, and Barry Levinson didn't always pay off, but it always brought something unexpected to the table.

The success of the 30 For 30 series has naturally inspired other networks to follow ESPN's lead.

"Once ESPN entered the marketplace in as emphatic a manner as it did, and it was proven to be accepted, other partners started to see the reaction to the marketplace," said Ron Wechsler, NBC vice president of original programming and production.

The rising tide is lifting all ships. SportsBusiness Journal reports that CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 1, NBCSN are all filling out their schedules with documentaries. Some units are doing it in-house—the Golf Channel and Showtime Sports say they plan to produce several of their docs each year. But others are going the 30 For 30 route, like movie channel Epix, which is commissioning a series of sports documentaries. Even ESPN has expanded 30 For 30 to comprise a second set of 30 docs, and a series of shorts. Sports fans have never lived in a time where more deep-dive options were available.

But the real sea change has come back at HBO Sports. For a place that has long prided itself on its in-house doc unit and conspicuously displays its awards in its offices, HBO is doing something once-unthinkable: it's actually listening to pitches from outside. Fittingly, its first two outside-produced documentary are coming from Peter Berg and Mike Tollin, both 30 For 30 vets.

A dramatic shift for sports documentaries [SportsBusiness Journal]