“Look at the hops on this guy, there wasn’t anyone like him,” enthuses Stanley Sugerman, played by Adam Sandler in the newly released Netflix series Hurrycalls.
Sugerman’s excitement is in response to a video of former basketball player Julius Erving throwing 63 slam dunks. The scene is an ode to a man who was one of the best in his field. A call to the past.
This idea is also central to where, according to some experts, sports film is today. Once an industrial titan, the classic like Rocky, Rudy or The sandbarthe genre is now a hoary veteran in a new class of content.
Audiences have long engaged with the themes of a sports film, says Lorna Schultz Nicholson, a former college rowing coach and sportswriter from Edmonton.
CLOCK | The author explains why we are drawn to sports stories:
“Sport is fast and furious and has ups and downs,” she said.
Vish Khanna who hosts the podcast Creative content and is deputy editor at Calling out! Magazine, similarly points to the suspense and arcs of sports as storytelling techniques to which he says audiences are naturally drawn.
Despite this, Hurry is just one of a few major sports-related publications coming out this year, along with home team, in the wind and Jersey. (Compare that to 2000, a year of classics like Think of the titans and The replacements in which eight major sports films were released.)
The film follows Sugerman, a player scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Tired of being on the road, Sugerman aspires to become a coach so he can spend more time with his family. While scouting in Spain, Sugerman meets Bo Cruz, an unknown phenomenon who Sugerman believes could be his team’s ticket to a championship.
So why are we seeing this decline in popular sports movies with audiences?
New world, new rules
Khanna attributes this change in part to the rise of social media. He says that sports films used to be about telling stories about athletes and giving the average viewer a glimpse into their lives.
But now we live in a “remarkable time for getting to know athletes,” he said, where audiences already have direct access to the lives of their favorite athletes.
CLOCK | Podcast host discusses athletes using social media to speak out:
Jonathan Filipovic, a professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, who has examined the role of sport in film and literature in some of his lectures, agrees that we are in the midst of an unprecedented situation Time when it comes to connecting with athletes.
“We know all about where the athletes came from and what they had to overcome,” he said. “It’s going to be a real challenge to dramatize that.”
But there’s more at play here than just social media, says Khanna. Technological advances have also changed the way we see and engage with sports. Khanna says we’re being shown real sporting events in a way that just hasn’t been seen in decades past.
“The way they’re broadcasting the games is so realistic that I feel like they’re actually leaning into filmmaking.”
Khanna says this can be seen in the current NHL playoffs, where the use of techniques like multiple camera angles and the involvement of drones make us feel closer than ever to the sport and its athletes.
This can also be found in Hurry. The film’s use of close-ups and humanizing real-life athletes through things like training sequences is what sets it apart, he adds.
But Filipovic says a saturation with content, albeit from social media, myriad streaming services, and even films from other genres, has made the themes and stories of sports films feel too familiar for audiences to care as much could take care of it, as it might have done in the past.
He says tropes that were once specific to sports film have been adopted by other genres.
CLOCK | Professor explains why sports film tropes are no longer unique:
“If you wanted the underdog story, you used to watch a sports movie, and now you can get that in many different contexts and in a much more popular package right now.”
He cites superhero movies—especially Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel — than to fill that niche today.
The interface between sport and culture
These developments have led to a blending of sport and culture in real life, says Filipovic. With greater access to these athletes, he said, “pop culture and sports kind of intersected.”
That left us with storylines to follow in real time, rather than just looking at fictionalized representations in a movie, Filipovic says.
“For a long time, athletes have been restricted…they do the sport, they do the advertising. And occasionally you might have someone in a movie, but that was really rare.”
Now athletes are increasingly appearing in films, says Filipovic, who points this out Hurry and another new Adam Sandler movie, Unpolished gemsstarring former NBA star Kevin Garnett.
HurryDozens of current and former NBA players are also represented here. Some play themselves, while others appear as fictional characters.
Khanna says the way these stories are told will likely continue to change — and we’re already seeing that happen.
That Teddy Lasso playbook?
When it comes to sports storytelling, Khanna says studios likely look to trends to decide what to put out. He points to the success of the streaming hit Apple TV+ Teddy Lasso.
The series follows the story of an American football coach who is hired to coach an English football team despite knowing nothing about the sport. He uses his unrelenting optimism to try to make up for his lack of knowledge.
“It’s a great example of telling a story around a sport, but really it’s about relationships,” Khanna said.
Schultz Nicholson also believes streaming services will release more sports-related content in the future. She says these services have the opportunity to connect with audiences that have been less active in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID has [led to] Kids aren’t physical anymore and I think we need to get them to be physical again and sport is one way to do that.
Given all these factors, is there still a demand for sports stories?
Khanna says yes, while the formula as we know it might change, the demand for sports movies will always be there.
“They refer to her [athletes] by their skills and how they persevere,” he said.
“If movies can continue to find the human element… I think they’re going to do well.”