A rookie with a hot arm from a small Southern community debuts in the major leagues, but the fast life takes its toll: He suddenly finds himself out of baseball. With nowhere to go, he returns to his high-school alma mater as a gym coach with an eye on eventually returning to the big leagues.
The story is a classic athlete profile that could be seen on sports magazine shows like ESPN’sOutside the Lines or HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. But this scenario is the story spine of HBO’s comedy series Eastbound and Down, one of several sports-themed cable series either on the air or in development.
Despite a limited success for sports-themed scripted shows on TV, particularly on cable, several cable programming executives believe that the sports genre can successfully play in the ratings arena alongside police procedurals, medical dramas and family comedies.
Networks such as HBO, FX, Spike TV and ABC Family are currently airing or are developing scripted dramas and comedies revolving around popular sports like baseball, college football, boxing and gymnastics that provide an adrenaline-driving hit to strong, character-driven story lines.
- HBO’s Eastbound and Down, starring comedian Danny McBride as down-on-his-luck pitcher Kenny Powers, drew an average of 4 million viewers during its freshman run earlier this year — enough for HBO to renew the Will Ferrell-produced series for a second season.
- ABC Family’s female-skewing drama series Make It or Break It, revolving around the lives of several teen girls competing in gymnastics, is one of the network’s most successful series of the summer, averaging 2.2 million viewers. It has been green-lighted for a second season.
- Spike TV will debut two sports-oriented comedy series in 2010 focused on college football and the owners of a sports bar.
- FX is considering green-lighting a boxing-themed series focusing on an aging fighter’s life after retiring from the ring.
“Everyone is trying to make their shows stand out, but if you can take people into an authentic world like sports, that’s a big plus,” said HBO Entertainment senior vice president of comedy series Casey Bloys. “The sports world in general has everything — a lot of fantasy, lore and darkness — so it’s a rich area for storytelling.”
Why now? Sports in recent years has become mainstream news with the high-profile problems of various sports and its athletes (i.e. steroids, animal cruelty arrests, etc.), which makes it prime fodder to build good stories around. Moreover, the broadcast networks aren’t mining the sports arena because they’re trying to reach female viewers, which provides an opportunity for cable networks to use the genre to their advantage to reach desirable male viewers, and in the case of ABC Family, young male and female viewers, executives said.
The recent run of cable networks stepping into the scripted sports ring comes after several years of failed or subpar attempts at trying to land a knockout hit in the genre. While the drama and intrigue of the sports world have created blockbuster and Oscar-winning theatrical films for generations, only a few sports-themed shows have had long, successful runs on television.
Broadcast shows such as the 1970s basketball-themed drama The White Shadow, the ’90s college-football comedy sitcom Coach, and, more recently NBC/DirecTV’s female-skewed football series Friday Night Lights and HBO’s long-running sports agent-based comedy series Arli$$ successfully melded sports themes with more overarching storylines or heavy character-driven plots.
But other, high-profile sports-themed shows failed to get out of the starting gate. Most recently on the cable side, ESPN unsuccessfully attempted to play ball on the scripted sandlot in the mid-2000s with Playmakers, a drama based on a fictional pro football team, and the poker-themed drama Tilt.
Neither were big hits with viewers and both were canned after their initial seasons. Further, the National Football League helped sack Playmakers after it objected to the negative portrayal of some the show’s main characters. (ESPN is an NFL TV-rights holder.)
Part of the difficulty in using sports as a backdrop for scripted fare is that most fans want to experience the drama, action and intrigue that sports brings to the table in its true, on-the-field form. For fans, the thrill is over once the game ends; it’s harder to keep that adrenaline going over 10 to 20 episodes.
“The thing that you find out with sports is that it’s hard to outdo the reality of sports itself,” said ESPN senior vice president of content development and enterprises Keith Clinkscales. “If I were to pitch a series in which a college basketball game goes into six overtimes, people would look at that and say that’ll never happen,” referring to the real-life circumstances surrounding the March 2009 Syracuse-Connecticut NCAA men’s college-basketball marathon.
Added FX president and general manager John Landgraf: “If you’re a fan of a certain sport, its more interesting to watch the sport itself with its real life teams and players than to watch a depiction of that sport in a scripted format. Nothing can beat the actual competition and the actual game.”
And little, it seems, would stretch the boundaries of credibility. Inspiration can be found in some of the bizarre, true-life off-the-field exploits of today’s sports stars, from former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress’ self-inflicted gunshot wound escapade last year to former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s 2007 arrest and conviction on animal-cruelty charges — not to mention the ongoing steroids controversies surrounding Major League Baseball, cycling and track and field.
Indeed, cable networks are rolling the dice on sports-themed dramas, focusing more on the characters and storylines than the on-the-field action. HBO’s Bloys said Eastbound and Down focuses more on the main character Kenny Powers’ struggles with post-baseball life rather than his delivery on the mound.
While Powers is obsessed with trying to make it back to the big leagues, most of the show takes place within his small North Carolina hometown.
“It’s more about a sports star and a fallen hero, which is a world that people can understand,” Bloys said. “But I think that having him be a sports star just amplifies the situation … If he were just an average guy, it still would be funny, but I think having him be a sports star makes it that much bigger.”
Focusing more on the character, rather than the character’s sports environment, helps viewers escape into the fantasy world of sports while keeping the storylines relative to viewers’ lives, said FX’s Landgraf. As a result, networks like FX don’t have to spend time and money making sure sports action scenes are authentic to the viewer because the story line isn’t based entirely on what’s happening on the field — or, in the case of FX’s Lights Out, in the boxing ring.
“In Lights Out, there isn’t a boxing match right away because we don’t have to get to that in the first episode or the second or the fifth,” said Landgraf, adding that the network will decide the fate of the series about a boxer trying to cope with life outside the ring in the next three or four months.
“We don’t have to show 12 rounds of a fight to make something compelling — it’s the context and the meaning in which the fight takes place from an emotional standpoint that makes it compelling.”
But not all sports series are looking to tone down the sweat and pain of athletic competition. ABC Family’s Make It Or Break It features a significant amount of gymnastics tumbling, swinging and mat work in order to provide a more-authentic portrayal of the sport for its often discerning millennial viewers.
'We did so much research in terms of making sure we portray gymnastics in an authentic way, which included having Olympic-trained athletes as stunt doubles for the actors,” said ABC Family vice president of development and programming Brooke Bowman. “The [stunt] doubles were very helpful in making sure we maintain a really authentic world because they are so well-versed in the sport.”
ABC Family’s efforts have gone a long way in debunking the long standing myth that sports-themed series only appeal to men: Make It or Break It is the network’s second-most-watched drama series among its target female viewers, behind The Secret Life of The American Teenager. Make It or Break It is currently averaging 1.4 million female viewers 18 to 34.
“What we were excited to do is go into the world that appeals to our millennial audience — especially our female teens,” she said. “We felt gymnastics created very clear stakes in terms of the competition element of it, and it’s a very unique way to capture a female millennial experience.”
In 2010, Spike TV will add a pair of sports-flavored series — Blue Mountain State, a comedy series set on the college-football field; and Players, about two brothers who own a sports bar — to an action-fueled sports lineup that includes Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts and Total Non-Stop Action pro wrestling. Executives with the male-targeted network said the strategy is a no-brainer.
“On the scripted side, we struggled so long trying to figure out what would go well with [CSI: Crime Scene Investigation],” said Spike TV president Kevin Kay. “We determined that we ought to look at what would go well with our biggest hit franchises, with some viewers looking to get their sports fix from different perspectives. Putting a little comedy in the sports mix is a great way to go.”
Even ESPN is still playing in the scripted sports arena, albeit on the broadband side. ESPN.com’s Mayne Street — starring ESPN contributor and former on-air anchor Kenny Mayne, who plays himself in a fictionalized version of life at the center of sports television — launched in November 2008, according to the sports network.
“I think the big-money scripted programming show is hard to make work, but that doesn’t mean that we will rule it out,” Clinkscales said. “We haven’t lost a lot of sleep thinking that this is an area we’re missing, because we do the other stuff so well.”
But will other networks come up to bat with scripted sports series in the future? Spike’s Kay said it’s doubtful unless that network is trying to target male viewers.
“So much of mainstream sports like baseball, football and basketball appeal to males that its doubtful we’ll see the broadcasters attempt any sports comedies because they’re trying to appeal to women viewers,” he said.
Still, HBO’s Bloys says cable has a unique opportunity to showcase all aspects of the sports world – the good, the bad and the ugly — through scripted shows because cable networks in general can present more edgier fare than their broadcast brethren.
“We’ve got more flexibility in cable to make that world really seem real and authentic, which is important because if you really want show a full sports picture — warts and all — you have to go there on screen.”