Next month the sports giant will flood the zone with what it’s hoping will be another culturally resonant, super-sized docu-project: “We the Fans,” a multiplatform package chronicling the lives and relationships of a tightknit group of Chicago Bears season-ticket holders in section 250 of Soldier Field.
The project follows the diehards through the Bears’ atrocious 3-13 season last year. It’s anchored around eight 30-minute episodes that will air over four weeks starting April 11. But before, during, and after the TV run, ESPN will spray a considerable amount of content for the project across its website with online-exclusive videos, photo galleries, articles, and a serialized podcast; on its WatchESPN video service; on social media; and in ESPN the Magazine.
In fact, “We the Fans” originated from ESPN’s digital group, and it’s the most ambitious programming initiative from the internet side of the house.
“The idea was to take advantage of all of ESPN’s platforms,” says Chad Millman, VP/editorial director of U.S. digital content. Ideally, he says, it will become a franchise ESPN can replicate with fans of other teams.
But it’s not just some kind of prestige play that attempts to mimic the success of “O.J.” ESPN is creating as many touch points as it can for “We the Fans” to maximize the amount of premium ads it can sell. At the same time, for all its digital extensions, the project is meant to reinforce the eroding pay-TV biz: The first four episodes will be binge-able on WatchESPN and on the ESPN app 48 hours ahead of the TV premiere (available only to cable and satellite TV customers).
“We the Fans” is more like reality TV than ESPN’s usual documentary features. At the outset of the project, Millman and other producers spent a day meeting with different groups of ticket holders recommended by the Bears. They cast the section 250 fans based on their diverse and interesting backstories.
The show’s stars include Sylvia Giacomuzzi, a single mom and lawyer who fought for her Bears tickets in a divorce settlement; the Tounsels, a working-class African-American family with multigenerational bonds; Brian Reusch, a radio DJ from rural Illinois who takes care of his elderly mother; and Mike Schaeffer and his fiancée, Chivon, whose wedding is set for October just as the Cubs make their World Series run. Terry Miller, a beer vendor who has worked the stands at Soldier Field for 16 years, narrates.
Sylvia Giacomuzzi in ESPN’s “We the Fans” at the Bears’ 29-14 loss to the Eagles on Sept. 19, 2016. ESPN/JON LOWENSTEIN/NOOR
Along with Millman, “We the Fans” is exec produced by Craig Lazarus, VP of “SportsCenter” and ESPN’s news and storytelling units, and senior coordinating producer Victor Vitarelli. Jose Morales and Sharon Matthews are the doc’s producers; Aaron Cohen served as head writer, Eric Neel and Jena Janovy edited, and Chin Wang served as creative director.
Will the prospect of shivering fans watching their hapless Bears appeal to a wide audience? Millman believes “We the Fans” transcends any single team, or even sports itself, and explores what it means to build faith and a family in the fans around you.
“You can relate to all these people,” he says “This is a type of storytelling we haven’t done before.”