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July 29, 2016

The World Through Sports

Storyteller Sal Masekela uses sports to tell stories that touch the heart.

Scott Jenkins
  • Courtesy VICELAND
  • Courtesy VICELAND
  • Courtesy VICELAND
  • Courtesy VICELAND

The brainchild of Sal Masekela, himself an extreme sports enthusiast, musician, and sportscaster, Vice World of Sports on Viceland TV and Viceland.com is a thought-provoking look into the lives of people through the lens of sports, telling stories that are thrilling, engaging, and heartfelt.

The show explores stories from around the globe, including:

  • A tiny village in Africa where boxing is everything, that has the highest per-capita rate of world-class boxers.
  • The oldest rivalry in hockey between two teams you’ve never heard of, but which you will soon deeply care about.
  • A soccer match in a high-security prison that determines how precious resources are allocated.
  • Cuban Baseball players, defected and without a country, caught in the middle of a 50 year old embargo.

“We have a mantra in the office: we’re not making culture or poverty porn. In other words, we’re going to do the best we can to not take advantage of the easy heartstrings of circumstances, or what people don’t have.

"We’re going to celebrate who they are and how they live, and give people an opportunity to have something in common with places that they never thought they knew they needed to know of.

“It’s our intention to have the subjects feel like they’re people that you see something of yourself in, whether it’s Boxer Richard Commey’s wanting to make his parents proud; Baseball Hopeful Mario Neyra being stuck in the Dominican Republic, and breaking down while looking at the picture of the family he can’t be with because of international relations between the US and Cuba; or kids on an Indian reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota playing basketball with a passion and a fervor – and the reason for it.

“We try to treat them all with the same passion and respect. They all have something in common, something you can identify with and go ‘wow, that’s incredible.’”

Vice World of Sports came from Masekela’s hunger for telling stories. As a sportscaster at other networks, he’d produce two-minute background pieces that brought context and special moments to light. But more and more often, those pieces would get shortened or cut and he was told that the audience only wanted “action, action, action!”

“I started to find myself really disillusioned towards the end, especially when I was at the X-Games, with the idea that I was no longer able to be a part of telling the story.

"But it was something that I wanted to do. I was trying to develop shows for a while that could put me in the position to do some real storytelling. I had a great opportunity where I really got the hunger for it when I was at the World Cup in South Africa, and I was a human interest reporter for ESPN and got to go out and shoot these great pieces.

"But again, they were great, but they easily could have been half hour shows, but they were three minutes to five minutes long.”

Masekela wanted to find a platform where he could tell these stories in long form for television. He’d been making documentary films, but he wanted a place where he could develop a relationship with an audience –  where they’d know they could find compelling stories on a regular basis.

When Vice came into the picture, it was a natural fit.

“I’ve always been a fan of Vice going all the way back to the magazine when I discovered it in the late 90s. I loved that they always dug beneath the surface of something you thought you always knew about, and showed you another side of any and every culture that you can imagine. They didn’t judge, they just told stories.

"As they grew into doing digital stuff, I was a fan of VBS-TV and the early stuff they did online. Once the HBO show came on, I was like ‘oh my God, this is the greatest thing ever.’

"It always made me feel like how the news was presented when I was young, like what my parents would watch – things that would make you think and you’d have a conversation, and develop an informed opinion, because you were being given stories and places and cultures and facts in a way that you had to digest through and think accordingly."

Masekela met Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice Media, at a Google event, started talking, and a friendship developed. They had a similar world view and bonded over sports. After hanging out a couple of times, Smith said  “How would you like to come on board and let’s figure out a way for us to work together?” They shook hands and that’s how it started.

Masekela started out filming sports pieces that were originally going to be for the Vice show on HBO, but as the Viceland channel came together, the decision was made to make them into Vice World of Sports.

“It gave me the ability to formulate and put together a great team and that’s really how it came about.”

“As a staff, we really scour the magazines and the internet to find stories that resonate with our world view of what we think the show is. That goes from Evan  Rosenfeld, the showrunner, all the way down to the editors, the production assistants, camera people, everyone.

"We really take a family approach. Everyone feels like if they have an idea, something that they’ve heard about, they throw it into the pot. And that’s how we all contribute to what the stories are.“

Now, he’s finally able to tell the stories he wants to, with the backing of a network that understands. In one episode, the show ran longer than normal, about 25 minutes as opposed to the regular 22. When screened for the network, they agreed that there was nothing else they could cut without losing the essence of the story.

Instead of shorting the audience, or doing a disservice to the subjects who opened up to the cameras to tell a story, the network said “Okay, we’ll figure it out. We’re gonna run it longer” – a far cry from having his pieces cut in his earlier career.

And the stories resonate with viewers.

“I had an interview on a podcast called The Fighter and the Kid and one of the hosts, a big jiu-jitsu guy, said that he cried during an episode – not because we were trying to make him cry, but because of how this person made him feel. And he said that’s what he thought was brilliant about our show.

“The human experience is filled with laughter, with anger, with successes and failures, and some of those things are gonna make you cry. And so all of those things should be there. I think we really should try to make sure that it’s there.

"I think the audience can smell if you’re trying to use it by design. I cried when I watched the episode and I was on the story. That’s a great feeling, to be able to watch something that I was a part of and still have it have that sort of effect on me.

“So when it does that to me, you know it makes me feel like I have a chance to resonate with the audience."

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