One of the most time-honoured film traditions is the sports-themed movie. While sports fans will seek out and enjoy as many sports films as possible, most non-sports fans will have seen at least a handful of sports movies. But why do we love sports-themed films so much?
A Hero to Root For
The sports film gives us a hero to root for – it could be an unsuspecting underdog making it in the big leagues as with Eddie the Eagle (2016) or a new form of team exceeding against all odds as with the women’s baseball league in A League of Their Own (1992).
Rocky (1976) is Sylvester Stallone’s homage to sports-themed films as we follow his role as the titular character. The film spanned seven sequels due mainly to the fact that we had a hero to root for. Sports stories are easy to outline and quick for audiences to grasp: the hero is an underdog and has dreams of achieving greatness, which will take them out of their current problematic surroundings.
Sports Ripe for Comedy
Sports-themed movies can also be played for laughs. Part of the reason sports comedies work so well is that we already know the sports, we know the types of people involved, and to lampoon some of the tropes we are familiar with is universally funny. Often these involve high stakes for ridiculous sporting feats, such as in Dodgeball (2004) which makes us take the dodgeball tournament seriously.
Nacho Libre (2006) does the same for Mexican wrestling. They take the inspiration from some of the serious sports films and inject a heavy dose of comedy. 2008’s Whip It is a coming-of-age comedy about roller derby, while Happy Gilmore (1996) does the same for golf. We still root for the characters and their success, but we know the film is tongue-in-cheek compared to serious sports films.
Playing It Straight
Often, sports themed films can be played straight, especially when based on biographical stories. I, Tonya (2017) tells the story of Tonya Harding and her surprising ice-skating career, cut short when she was alleged to have been involved with an attack on her competitor. The Blind Side (2009) outlines the story of Michael Oher who went from poverty to becoming a key player on the Baltimore Ravens football team.
Moreover, Cool Runnings (1993) tells the story of the Jamaican bobsled team that defied odds to reach the Winter Olympics in 1988. Stories of overcoming adversity are prevalent in sport, so to form a biopic around them tells the audience to expect some meaty drama and a happy ending.
Our Prevailing Love of Sport
While some enjoy the films for face value, others enjoy the added dimension they give to sports. While gaming franchises such as the annual FIFA and WWE’S 2K additions allow fans of football and wrestling to get engaged in a hands-on way with the sport the enjoy watching, sports movies help us to connect in a new way with the sports industry.
Indeed, fans aren’t content with just watching the matches unfold, and that can be seen in all facets of sports: it’s common for sports fans this side of the Atlantic to stay up to catch the Superbowl or a high stake Vegas boxing match. Similarly, those who indulge in football betting in Ireland don’t stick to the GAA markets: they’ll likely make the most of the vast amount of sports fixtures that can be wagered on, from football to tennis, cricket to UFC. Moreover, sports fans also help their heroes shoot to the top of bestseller lists for autobiographies. Sports films tie into all this: fans of sports generally want to devour as much sport as they can that goes beyond merely watching it unfold on TV.
Sport makes good fodder for films because it has a recognisable hero’s journey, it has characters to root for and to hate, and it works just as well when played for laughs as it does for Academy Award consideration. Ultimately, sports movies work because sports fans are keen to engage with sports in as many ways as possible that don’t just involve watching or playing.