After workshopping the idea for five years, Gotham Chopra finally saw his Religion of Sports series debut in the fall of 2016 on the Audience Network. Its original six-episode run was a journey of the power of sports as passion – almost literally a religion for people on every continent on earth. Six more episodes followed a year later. Now, Chopra has pulled in Tom Brady and Michael Strahan as co-founders in Religion of Sports, the media company, and the team has bigger plans. In January, Tom vs. Time – an unprecedented look behind the scenes of the life of Tom Brady – debuted on Facebook Watch. Here, Chopra talks about the origins of Religion of Sports, some of his favorite moments and what lies ahead for the media business.
Q: Where did the idea behind Religion of Sportscome from?
Chopra: I feel like it’s my life! My parents were immigrants from India and I was the first of my family to be born outside of South Asia. I grew up in Boston and sports for me was sort of the classic cultural assimilation. My parents knew nothing about it and really only paid attention when I played sports in school. I totally bought into sports being such a fabric of the culture in the Northeast. I grew up a huge Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox fan.
The “religion” part really came out of my upbringing. My father was a Western-trained physician who came to the United States in the early 1970s and lived the classic immigrant’s story: He worked hard and had no money. It was tough for him. Along with that came drinking, smoking, stress, all of that sort of stuff. In the early ’90s, he started to have this personal crisis where he started to think, “I hate my life and it’s going nowhere and it’s toxic and terrible.” That’s when he started meditating. And he ended up giving up all his bad habits and his job and quickly started to become known for what he is now. This was long before there was a yoga studio on every city corner – back then it was sort of fringe, even in a progressive place like Boston. So his evolution kind of coincided with my love of sports. And everything started to converge.
Your father is definitely known for something other than sports. Did his philosophy help shape the idea for the show?
It did. And honestly, my dad could care less about sports. His take is, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand why these guys get paid millions of dollars to throw a ball.” But I used to tell him even back in the ’90s, “Everything you talk about in spiritual traditions exists in sports.” When we went to Boston Garden to watch the Celtics play, that’s a spiritual event. Talking about the hallowed ground of Fenway Park, the Green Monster and the mythology of the Boston Red Sox, that’s a spiritual tradition. That really helped me focus on the idea behind the show, and that’s kind of how the idea was conceived.
How did you first start coming up with story ideas?
We had a lot of big ideas in the early going and we wanted it to be global – the cricket rivalry between India and Pakistan was one. I remember our first idea was to take on the huge Spanish soccer rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona – they call it El Clásico, and in a geopolitical and historical sense, it’s the Spanish Civil War played out through a soccer match. I went to Spain to scout it and we quickly realized we would need about 10 times our budget to pull it off. We couldn’t do that. So the decision-making become more practical. We had our budget, and we had researchers scouring the internet for great stories. There was no real formula, but we did think to ourselves, “Let’s put the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball aside for a second. Those are hard to crack. What other sports out where there are big, passionate fan bases?” With that filter on, NASCAR and UFC became really obvious choices.
Which idea came first and how did it come together?
The first episode we did, “God in the Machine,” wasn’t even on the sport of NASCAR. We found a guy named Joey Jones who grew up in rural Georgia as a massive racing fan. He dreamed of being a stock car driver, but that was cut short while he was with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. He was a bomb tech and lost both of his legs in an accident on his last deployment and was outfitted with prosthetics. When he came home, he was fortunate enough to get involved with NASCAR, which is very veteran-friendly. I realized the sport meant something more to him now: Racing is all about man and machine becoming one and that literally became Joey’s life because of his metallic legs. There was a spirituality to it. I met the guy and he was fascinating – the total opposite of me, a Bostonian with an Ivy League upbringing. But he made the story come alive in a way that, say, sitting down with a megastar like Dale Earnhardt Jr. wouldn’t have. So that became our approach.
That must be your favorite episode. What other episodes did you really connect with?
It’s hard to call my favorites out, because it’s like picking your favorite children. But yeah, I really connected with that one. Another would be “Keepers of Faith,” about two fathers on either side of the Scottish soccer rivalry known as the Old Firm. Every time Celtic and Rangers play each other, it’s essentially a battle between Catholic vs. Protestant, and it’s really ugly. So there’s a big political element. But we found these guys who have a shared tragedy in that they each lost a teenage child in accidents. On the day of the game, they climb a mountain together and have a hugely emotional moment. As a father myself, that really got me. You realize it’s about far more than sports.
Michael Strahan and Tom Brady are part of the production team. How did they become involved?
Strahan I met kind of randomly around the time he started guest hosting Live! with Regis and Kelly. It was hard for me because he spent his whole career with the New York Giants and I was such a huge Patriots fan! But a lot of my friends who knew about my idea recommended I meet him since he was doing a lot of TV stuff. So I had breakfast with him in 2011 and laid the idea on him and he surprised me by saying, “That sounds cool! We should work on this together.” So that was a big win for me.
Brady came soon after. I was introduced through mutual business contacts, and got an invitation to the home in Los Angeles where he was living in at the time. It was like a palace up on the hill that I joke was like the mansion in Edward Scissorhands. It was pretty informal, it was really just to make contact with him. So I pitched him the idea and he got it immediately. He grew up a 49ers fan in the Bay Area in the ’80s and ’90s so he totally understood the “religion” approach.
What are their roles in producing the show and in the business more broadly?
On the show, they’re executive producers, which means different things. Michael is in the media and has a production company, so he helps on that end. I bounce a lot of ideas off him and his team and they’re extremely helpful in bringing them to life. Tom is obviously a full-time football player, and that’s what makes him amazing. He has a unique perspective because he’s still very much in it. He’ll suggest approaches for stories that are from an elite athlete’s mindset that I often won’t think of.
More broadly, we’ve had several conversations around how they will both help us as we build the business. We’ve brought aboard team members and advisors (including entrepreneur and operator Ameeth Sankaranto help us run the business and Dirty Robberas our production partner), and Tom and Michael help in many ways, including with promotion. Both of these guys have huge reach and their names open a lot of doors for the business. Their respective networks are amazing. For instance, I wanted to reach out to David Beckham. Tom was like, “OK, do you want me to text him?” [Laughs.]That’s been extraordinarily helpful. The infrastructure allows me to focus on creating great content – we’re excited about many projects on the horizon.