This summer, TV schedules around the world have been dominated by sports events such as Euro 2016, Test Cricket and Formula1 and now the Rio Olympics. But for some reason, our collective love of sport has rarely translated into a memorable scripted TV series.
Shows that have tried and failed to capture the essence of sport include FX boxing drama Lights Out, which lasted for a single season in 2011, and ESPN’s Playmakers – a series that managed to attract the ire of the NFL during its 11-episode lifespan (2003).
Faring better, USA Networks’ Necessary Roughness lasted three seasons, while NBC’s Friday Night Lights managed five. But neither really scored heavily in terms of TV audience interest. The Game, a comedy drama that launched on The CW and then transferred to BET, is one of the few successes in this space, running for eight seasons before its 2015 cancellation.
The situation hasn’t been that different outside the US, with examples of sports-themed dramas few and far between. In the UK, Footballers’ Wives was a modest success between 2002 and 2006, while Australia produced an entertaining cricket series called Bodyline in 1984. But, overall, sport is massively under-represented in drama when you consider its wider appeal.
In contrast to TV, the film industry has delivered a steady stream of pretty good sports-themed movies. There are, for example, several stories in which the central character succeeds against the odds – a line of attack that has given us both comedies (Cool Runnings, Eddie the Eagle) and dramas (The Blindside, The Natural, Tin Cup).
There are also plenty of films set against interesting periods in the history of sport (Chariots of Fire, Ali, Invictus, Eight Men Out, Rush). When you also factor in Jerry Maguire, The Mean Machine, The Bad News Bears, Foxcatcher and Million Dollar Arm, it’s not a bad track record compared to TV.
So what’s the difference? Well, one factor seems to be that the pacing of movies is more like that of live sport. Executed well, the twists and turns of a 90- or 100-minute film are not that different to a good football, basketball or baseball game. Both have an adrenaline-boosting immediacy that appeals to audiences. Sitting in a movie theatre also resembles sitting in a sports arena much more closely than the typical home-viewing experience.
Another factor is the issue of authenticity. One thing that causes problems for any film or TV series focusing on contemporary sport is that we know the protagonists are not real, because we see the real versions doing amazing things all the time. Even with the benefit of fast-cut editing, actors struggle to replicate the magic of true athletes.
Similarly, the fans that sports stories are aimed at generally have deep-rooted loyalties to real teams. As a fan of Arsenal FC, I have no interest in dramas that attempt to portray fictionalised football teams (though I get that there are legal and branding issues that make the use of real talent and clubs a challenging area).
The same reality gap must also be an issue for fans of other football teams or of NFL, NBA and MLB clubs. This is why, when TV does get interested in sport, it is currently more inclined to aim for behind-the-scenes sports documentaries (though a potential problem here is that the subjects of such stories often have editorial control, leading to sanitised shows).
The movies have tended to avoid the authenticity issue by dealing with historical subject matter (so we have a less acute sense of who the protagonist is) or stories about ‘triers’ as opposed to ‘winners.’ But historically, when they have tried to tackle hardcore sports subjects head on, they have had an advantage over TV – access to A-list talent.
If, for example, you are going to portray Muhammad Ali then it’s not so hard to accept Will Smith in that role because he has a star status that suits the subject. Similarly, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers in 2014’s hit movie Foxcatcher.
Having said all this, there has been a shift in the way we perceive TV recently. While a TV drama might still struggle to replicate the immediacy and adrenaline of the movie experience, it can now attract A-list talent. Perhaps that’s why we are finally seeing a decent sport-themed series in the shape of HBO’s Ballers.
True, Ballers is not securing massive audiences – but it is one of HBO’s top-rating shows and has just been commissioned for a third season. For anyone not familiar with the show, it stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – who has all the necessary attributes to front a sports-themed series (sporting background, big-screen image). He plays a former NFL superstar who now acts as an adviser to young talent coming to terms with their new lifestyles.
Subject-wise, the show is smart. It doesn’t focus on the games themselves, which would be an editorial mistake. Instead it tries to explore the lifestyle of those involved in the world of NFL. It does, however, reference teams like the Miami Dolphins – rather than alienating the audience with fictitious alternatives.
Other sports-themed shows that are holding their own on TV including Starz basketball drama Survivor’s Remorse, which benefits in the authenticity stakes from the fact that LeBron James, basketball’s biggest star, is an executive producer. Also doing pretty well is Kingdom, which operates against the backdrop of the mixed martial arts world. Aired by AT&T’s Audience Network, it was recently renewed for a third season. Here again you can see reasons why this show might work. One is that it stars Nick Jonas, a music industry heartthrob who has successfully reinvented himself as a charismatic screen presence. The other is that MMA isn’t NFL or Premier League soccer.
In other words, the authenticity bar isn’t quite so high for the audience, which can enjoy the drama without having to worry too much about the sport itself. Besides, it’s easier to film the tightly cropped world of one-on-one combat than a major team-based sports event (where we are used to 60-plus cameras covering every aspect of the live action).
The TV industry’s shift towards limited series should also, in theory, make it easy to pull off a sports-based story. Not many would justify a returning series model. But there are some great period stories that could be told over six or eight episodes – rather than as a feature film. One series that perhaps shows the way is Rivals Forever, a German drama for ARD about the Dassler Brothers, who founded the rival Puma and Adidas sporting brands.
As the film industry has demonstrated, there is great subject matter in sport that could form the basis of a limited series. Andy Samberg and Murray Miller, for example, are making a sports doping mockumentary for HBO. But this is surely a subject that would make also brilliant TV drama. Imagine an The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story-style approach to the life of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Or a Billions-style drama exploring recent allegations of systematic state-sponsored doping by Russia.
Possibly, with the demand for scripted series showing no sign of letting up, now is the time for drama producers and writers to revisit their relationship with sport-based storytelling.