Last year AUDIENCE® introduced a brand new series, Religion of Sports, which delved into our fascination and deep connection to sports. The first season held a spotlight to everything from NASCAR to rugby, and this season co-creators Tom Brady, Michael Strahan, and filmmaker Gotham Chopra are back with a whole new lineup of subcultures to explore. We spoke to documentarian and sports-fanatic Gotham Chopra to get a taste of what’s in store during Season 2! Read our interview below, and watch the season premiere of Religion of Sports, this Wednesday, November 15th at 9/8c on AUDIENCE®.
After the success of Season 1, how will the stakes get even higher in Season 2? What stories are you particularly excited to tell this season?
I think the journey just keeps going. The thing about the religion of sports is that it’s truly global and touches almost everyone. This season features stories in places as far flung as New Zealand, specifically the All Blacks Rugby team which is arguably the most successful sports franchise on the planet. Their win percentage over the last few decades is better than any team you have ever heard of in any sport—from the New York Yankees to Manchester United, etc. That success stems in part from their spiritual connection to the native Maori culture of New Zealand. On the other hand, this season we also explore much more niche sports like rock climbing or ultra (bike) racing. These are not mainstream sports, and yet the stories about the people who engage in them are profound. The underlying ethos of the series is “why sports matter,” and that’s something I think we really have embraced this year to show that “sports as religion” isn’t just some vague metaphor, but a real thing that brings meaning and purpose to people’s lives.
What’s so amazing about the show is its global perspective. How do you discover and hone in on these narratives from across the globe?
One of the cool things about this season is that we have started to really establish a brand and we have people, fans, filmmakers etc., reaching out to us with story ideas. The basic idea behind Religion of Sports—that sports are more than just wins and losses, box scores and statistics—appeals to people at a very intuitive level. If you’re a fan or know one, when you hear the words “religion of sports” and you just get it. We also have an amazing creative team so as ideas come in, we really vet them, refine them, and try to find that primordial element that will make them resonate. Beyond the big idea, we also think: “What’s the human element and narrative at the heart of the story that will make it connect to a broader audience?” That’s our process and the more we do it, the better I think we get at it.
This season delves into some really powerful stories that touch on redemption and change—in particular your exploration of baseball at San Quentin, and bringing fencing to underserved communities. Why is it important to you as a documentarian to tell these stories?
Instinctively when people think of the power of sports, things like the Cubs winning the world series last year, or the Patriots miracle comeback at the Super Bowl come to mind. While those are definitely awesome examples that touch millions of people, there are moving stories at a much more community level about how sports transform people’s lives. I liken it to the difference between visiting Saint Paul’s Cathedral at the Vatican, and admiring the beauty of its architecture from behind the velvet rope vs. being able to go to the church in your local community where you can touch and feel every part of it. You can sit in the pews for as long as you like, and just feel the power of faith even if you’re not quite a believer. With both our San Quentin and fencing episodes, there’s something very tangible about the ways in which sports are changing peoples lives for the better. It’s inspiring and stories we’re grateful to be able to showcase.
How would you describe your relationship to sports? Why are sports important to you?
I’m a true believer. I think sports are not just a real religion, but that they’re better than the rest because they don’t really require blind faith or buying into dogma. Sports requires attendance. If you’re a Dodgers or Astros fan (most recently), then you had a spiritual experience over the last month or so. You became part of something greater than yourself. Your devotion to your team bound you to a community of people that saw beyond race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, and lifestyle. That’s what religion is supposed to do, but often, sadly, it does the opposite. I think we’re living in divisive times right now, and the power of sports can bring unity and that’s important. I’m not totally naive, I know sports are also big business and that comes with a dark side too. But I still believe that their essence—the experience of being a fan or athlete—often transcends some of the baggage that comes with leagues and all the surrounding drama. And that’s pretty great!
What other sports stories would you love to tell going forward?
While I am a big fan of big sports like the NBA, NFL, Premiere League Soccer, etc. I actually love learning more about sports I don’t know much about. So things like free diving, ultra running, cricket. I’m drawn to understanding how transformative these sports are to the people that practice or follow them. I also love seeing how sports really resonate at the local level, in communities where the stakes are enormous even if no one outside of that little town knows about them. High school hockey rivalries, black top basketball culture in the inner cities—these are where sports matter even more than in the big leagues, and those are awesome stories we want to tell.