In ESPN’s new docuseries “Backstory,” investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr. goes beyond what viewers think they know about unresolved sports stories of the past and present, beginning with the 2018 U.S. Open Women’s Finals.
Inspired by the hit “30 for 30” series and modeled on “The Last Days of Knight,” three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Van Natta Jr. goes on a “journalism journey through those stories to gather new information and find fresh insight at a time when people really want the truth,” he tells TheWrap.
The debut episode, “Serena vs. The Umpire,” dives into what Van Ant, Jr. calls “the ugliest finish in tennis Grand Slam history.”
“The clashes that Serena had with the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, really divided people as to whether she was right and justified or if he had done the right thing,” he said. “Then you had Naomi Osaka winning the first Grand Slam of her life, weeping and crying during the trophy ceremony.”
While much of the drama played out on live TV, heated exchanges occurred during commercial breaks. “We were able to slow the match down and deliver those conversations made in real time in the narrative of the show,” Van Natta Jr. explained.
“The aftermath of it was also very interesting,” he said. “There was a lot to explore in that match … it left everyone divided and a year later people still haven’t given ground at all. It was our goal to tell people a lot of new things and I think we met that.”
Through the unique format of “Backstory,” we see Van Natta Jr. (pictured above) conducting on-camera interviews with witnesses, experts and subjects, but also doing voiceovers. “It is almost going inside the journalist’s head, explaining the process step-by-step from the beginning of the research to the end of the investigation,” he said. “The audience goes along for the ride to learn as much information about a story they thought they already knew.”
Rather than a scripted narrative like a polished news show, the series has a podcast-style feel. “It has a very different sound. It’s much more of a radio or podcast medium that we’re trying to take to television,” said Van Natta Jr., who tries to tell each story the way he would tell it to a buddy in a bar.
“Backstory” has four more episodes on the horizon, the second of which will delve into the banning of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson from baseball. It is set to air around the time of the World Series in October, tied to the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox Scandal from the 1919 World Series. But it is while based on a historical event, there are very strong connections with the present. “We also focus on the banning of Pete Rose and look at the MLB’s current embrace of legalized gambling to turbo charge fan interest,” Van Natta Jr. said.
Episode 3 dives into the catfishing of NFL player Manti Te’o while he was at Notre Dame. The final two subjects have not been announced, but Van Natta Jr. promises they will tackle “one of the most important topics in all of sports.”
“Being an investigative reporter has always made me feel like a detective — going by my gut to follow leads, doing interviews that sometimes feel like interrogation to try to get the truth,” he said. “There is a cold case aspect [to ‘Backstory’], picking up a case that hasn’t been looked at in a long time and hoping that someone is more willing to talk now. It is a very impressive goal for the series.”
“Backstory” is directed by Timothy N. Horgan, executive produced by Robert Abbott, with John Dahl, Wright Thompson and Van Natta Jr. as executive producers and creators.
The first episode of “Backstory” airs Sunday, Aug. 18, at 1 p.m. ET/1:30 PT on ABC, with multiple re-airs following across ESPN networks.