The Next Great Sports Movie?

The Next Great Sports Movie?

As a film critic, I can tell you few genres go wanting at the cineplex. Thrillers, horror, fantasy, superhero epics—they are evident week after week, year after year. You can even find quite a few rom-coms, though most of them aren’t worth seeking out.

There is, however, one genre that is increasingly in short supply—the sports film.

Granted, we have the Creed franchise to be thankful for, and one can point to "Ted Lasso" and "Winning Time" dotting our premium channels, but there just aren’t a lot of scripted sports films being made anymore. Why?

A few decades back, sports films and sports biopics were quite prolific. They not only received critical hosannas, but they made money. The Rocky franchise, Bull Durham, Hoosiers, the Major League franchise, Friday Night Lights, A League of Their Own—all successes. Time has been kind to those films. They stand up as classics, or cult classics, and sports movies bag plenty of awards, too. Just look at the IMDb pages of Raging Bull, Jerry Maguire, The Blind Side, Chariots of Fire, Million Dollar Baby, and The Wrestler.

What’s Hollywood afraid of?

The dearth of sports films is rather boggling, too, as sports continues to nab good ratings on TV. Attendance is healthy at most sporting events as well, and sports stories come stuffed with drama, physical danger, and clear stakes. Sure, today no recreational activity is more popular than video games, but sports is hardly out of fashion.

Are producers afraid of the costs of renting out arenas or stadiums for their productions? Tinsel Town has recreated ancient Rome, the Roaring 20s and more multiverses than you can shake 200 million at, so they could just as easily create sporting arenas, too.

Or is casting the issue? Yes, an actor must be able to convincingly play an athlete on film, but if Jenna Ortega can learn to play the cello and fence for "Wednesday" in a couple of months, what’s keeping any capable actor from essaying an athletic prowess on screen?

Maybe the industry is reluctant to make sports films due to a number of high profile sports films bombing. 2017’s Battle of the Sexes was a box-office dud despite its compelling story about tennis champ Billie Jean King taking on male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in a 1973 match. Even the star presence of Emma Stone and Steve Carrell couldn’t generate ticket sales. And while Will Smith won almost every acting prize for 2021’s King Richard, it’s lackluster box-office performance was an ironic slap in the face. Is tennis too niche these days? It shouldn’t be as it’s an international sport, and certainly films about tennis should translate across the pond, always a major concern of any studio these days.

But sports films are becoming more and more rare.

Sports heroes aren’t quite what they used to be, of course. Too much money, too much hype, too many games on every cable channel. Maybe it’s over-saturation. These days, anyone with a cell phone and a TikTok account can be a celebrity, so maybe our adoration of movie stars, recording artists, and athletes are going to suffer when fame seems so accessible. Or maybe we’ve forgotten how great sports movies can be, and frankly, how easy they are to write in most respects.

Easy? Absolutely. As I’ve already stated, a sports story automatically comes with heightened drama, clear stakes, and participants who must go above and beyond the call of what’s asked of normal folk. Athletes often have to perform remarkable feats, like hit a home run or break an Olympic record, or come from behind in the last seconds of a game to win at the buzzer. Who doesn’t love that? And all those athletes tend to be in incredible shape, too—sexy, fit, eye candy for days. Who wouldn’t love that?

Of course, there are certain rules to follow when one writes a sports story, or at least strongly suggested guidelines. Chief among them? Make it an underdog story.

After all, it’s hard to root for an athlete onscreen if they’re not … well, relatable enough. Battle of the Sexes may have suffered from King being the best female tennis player in the world at the time, and the match was a novelty, so the stakes didn’t seem all that earth-shattering. Perhaps King Richard was hurt by its story concentrating on the coach and not those incredibly talented young daughters, Venus and Serena.

Look up any chapter about loglines in any screenwriting book and you’ll see that they’re almost always about a hero’s journey, with an underdog struggling against great odds to achieve his goals. Rooting for the coach doesn’t seem quite as potent as cheering for those girls, does it?

If you study sports films, you’ll find that the greater the odds, the better the story will be.

In 1976’s Rocky, the title character of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) was a total schlub—a joke to even be considered as a contender for the heavyweight crown—yet he got his chance and ran with it. Who wouldn’t cheer heartily for that?

In 1984’s The Natural, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) was a major league rookie at 35, having been gunned down in his prime by jealous mobsters. When Hobbs finally recovered from his wounds to get a second shot, he was laughed at by his teammates, the press, and even derided by the team manager. Who couldn’t feel for a guy like that? And when he hit the game-winning homer and ran in slow-motion to Randy Newman’s stirring score, who in the audience wasn’t imagining themselves running those bases as he was?

One of the tropes that makes a great sports film is often for the big game to not actually be the climax. Sometimes the victory comes during the character arc and the climatic game is just the finale of his or her rise. Even in a goofball sports comedy like 1996’s Kingpin, disgraced bowler Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) has already won back his sense of pride and the girl, even if he loses the big match. He’s already achieved his victory elsewhere.

Indeed, quite often, the best part of a sports story is what happens away from the actual competition. That was certainly the truth of the heralded 1971 TV-movie Brian’s Song. There is no climactic big game to be found in the film because the story was about the friendship between Chicago Bears star running back Gale Sayers and his doomed teammate, Brian Piccolo. Piccolo’s great battle isn’t against the Packers or the Vikings, it’s against cancer. And while he loses that fight, he goes out a hero—a great friend, husband, father, and inspiration to his teammates.

That’s bigger than any touchdown.

Another crucial component of a terrific sports film lies within how it showcases the athletes off the field. The Bad News Bears in 1976 wasn’t really about a little league team winning but rather, about a group of misfits coming together to find friendship within the auspices of sports.

1977’s Slap Shot is a brilliant sports comedy for showcasing a losing club’s attempts to connect with the local fans and gain respect from the community. Granted, aggressive, violent antics on the rink turn their fortunes around, but the point remains that it’s about them feeling loved, not just being victors.  

One of the best sports films ever made is Robert Towne’s Personal Best. He wrote it as a coming-of-age story about an immature but talented teen (Mariel Hemingway) who grows up on the track and off it, too. She even finds love with a female teammate (Patrice Donnelly), a daring plot point in 1982, as well as the maturity to move on from it without derailing either of their careers. At the end, she doesn’t win the qualifying race for the Olympics, but she does win at distinguishing herself in the human race, a far cry from the spoiled, irresponsible kid who started out the story.

Finally, in this day and age, where it’s more and more difficult to surprise knowing, cynical audiences, it’s best to approach writing a sports story by zagging more than the expected zigging. If there’s a more unique angle to the sports story you want to tell, go with it. It will likely be more attention-getting, and perhaps the side story is the real heart of the athletic one.

If you were going to tell a story about Pittsburg Pirate Roberto Clemente in the 1970s, his work off-season as a humanitarian would probably strike a larger audience as more fascinating than merely watching him hit homers and win a World Series.  

A biopic about Althea Gibson, the first female black tennis pro to win a Grand Slam title  in 1956, would be much more interesting about how she broke the color barrier more than perfected her backhand, no?

With soccer finally capturing America’s attention, there certainly are oodles of stories that can be told with such a new backdrop to most USA audiences.

Now that sports photographers are all but extinct at most newspapers, what kind of story could one write about an amateur photographer who captures his local team, and they all become famous for it?

See, there’s no reason sports stories can’t come back in vogue. And no reason why screenwriters can’t find a compelling one to start cranking on. Just remember to make it about an underdog.  

Start there and, believe me, your script will have as sporting a chance as any.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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