The Cost of Winning Season 1 Review – an efficient but too slight sports doc

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: November 18, 2020 (Last updated: November 29, 2023)
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The Cost of Winning review - an efficient but too slight sports doc


The Cost of Winning is a solid sports doc, but there’s so little of it compared to its competitors that it can’t help but feel too slight and selective.

This review of The Cost of Winning Season 1 is spoiler-free.

HBO’s four-part docuseries The Cost of Winning is, in many ways, a cousin to something like Netflix’s Last Chance U, an intimate sporting documentary about the ins and outs of the football program at Baltimore’s Catholic St. Frances Academy, and the die-hard supporting culture surrounding it. But for its inspiring moments and snapshots of a fraught community rallying around a common cause, there simply isn’t enough here – the whole thing only runs about two hours – to really delve into the subject in the same depth its competitors reached.

There’s such a compelling story here that you can’t help but wish for more of it than The Cost of Winning provides. Co-directed by Rob Ford and Maurice Holden, the half-hour installments concern themselves with the St. Frances Panthers, a football team that rose to prominence thanks in large part to unconventional coast Biff Poggi, a former investment fund manager who injected considerable resources into the team – enough to coax enough elite players that eventually the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association booted them from the conference, citing a competitive disadvantage.

That’s great! It’s a tremendous hook. It’s also inextricably tied up with the history of St. Frances as one of the first Catholic schools to teach Black students, which factored into their ostracization – or at least the spit-balled theories surrounding it, although it’s very hard to justify given the inarguable advantages that Poggi provided. It’s an issue that isn’t really explored in any meaningful sense, partly because it’d be far too contentious and partly because there isn’t time, so instead The Cost of Winning falls into a much more familiar rhythm as it chronicles the Panthers’ 2018 season.

As with Last Chance U, the appeal here is getting to know the players, the coaching staff, and the community surrounding the team – all of those things are here, but to a much lesser extent than they would be in a chunkier show. There’s a lot to like, for sure, I just wish there was more time to like it, especially since it feels like only the surface is being scratched by what’s on offer. There’s so much more to learn about these players, this team, this neighborhood in Baltimore, and whatever arcane shiftiness is going on with Poggi’s finances. The Cost of Winning is basically a cliffs-notes version of a much more substantive version of a sports docuseries; it’ll hit the right notes at the right time, but it won’t hold them for long enough that the tune stays stuck in your head.

HBO, TV Reviews
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