The Big (Boring) Trend in Sports Movies: Not Showing Sports

Million Dollar Arm is the latest in a crop of films about guys who work in athletics, but whose fates have nothing to do with what happens on the field. 

Million Dollar Arm, which stars Jon Hamm, tells the true story of sports agent J.B. Bernstein. His career floundering, Bernstein and his partner go to India and return accompanied by two young cricket players they hope to convert into Major League pitchers.

Aside from some shenanigans in a hotel elevator and a little gap-jawed gazing at a fancy party, the fertile comedic ground of two rural Indian boys in L.A. is left fallow. Bernstein's would-be pitchers are mere bit players; the film is focused far more on Bernstein. Which means that Million Dollar Arm is the story of a rich, handsome, straight, white male trying to maintain his affluent lifestyle. Which means it’s really boring.

That boringness will be familiar to any sports’ fan whose fandom has enticed them to the multiplex in recent years. More and more, sports movies these days don’t have sports in them—a frustrating trend that presumes the ever-more-publicized sideshows and back-room deals of athletics are more interesting than games themselves.

Jerry Maguire (1996) is the most obvious antecedent to Million Dollar Arm, and to the no-sports-sports-movie genre more broadly. In terms of story arc, Maguire and Arm are virtually identical: A struggling sports agent learns that there is more to life than work, and so paradoxically becomes better at his job. Both films are much more concerned with the namesake agent's career and love life than with anything happening on the field.

Another example is Moneyball, the story of Oakland A's GM Billy Beane's fight to use sabermetics to analyze baseball players. So is Clint Eastwood's Trouble with the Curve, about an aging baseball scout. Two for the Money, with Matthew McConaughey and Al Pacino, delved into the world of sports betting. Most recently, we got Kevin Costner's NFL-themed Draft Day.

None are truly sports movies. That is, the plots do not revolve around what happens on the field—like they do in, for instance, The Natural, Hoosiers, or Any Given Sunday. In those films, the protagonist's performance on gameday determines the characters' fate. A basket must be made, a homer hit, a touchdown caught. Draft Day, meanwhile, hinges on a bunch of phone calls.

One explanation for the trend could be media saturation. With ESPN, the blogosphere, social media, and 24-hour sports talk radio, it's getting harder for filmmakers to find an untold story. Think of Michael Sam. As opposed to, say, the struggle portrayed in 42, where so much happened away from the public eye, Sam's tale has been endlessly dissected in real time. Add the upcoming OWN reality show, and there won't be any aspect of Sam's career that potential moviegoers won't already have seen. Rudy would be another example. If his story took place today, Rudy Ruettiger would likely have been the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 and a bunch of NBC human interest features before he ever made it to the big screen. Real-time blanket coverage of athletes, in other words, means that filmmakers have to look harder and in more obscure places to find adaptable stories.

If there has been a change in the way sports are reported, there has also been a change in what the audience wants. Look at the rise of fantasy sports. As fans, we once were armchair quarterbacks or coaches. We now have also become armchair GMs and agents. Fans often spend as much time discussing salary caps and contract disputes as they do completion percentages or a batting average.

The problem, at least in the case of Million Dollar Arm and Draft Day, is that stories about the business of sports simply aren't as interesting to watch as sports themselves. Fans may enjoy pretending to be a general manager, for instance, but that doesn't mean they find stories about real GMs equally compelling. That's because being a GM is largely an intellectual as opposed to physical endeavor. While certainly challenging, it's not the least bit cinematic.  Hamm in Million Dollar Arm simply watches, talks, and drives. In Trouble With the Curve, Eastwood stands and squints. Costner spends almost all of Draft Day talking.

And what's at stake in these films, really? What's the source of dramatic tension in a film like Draft Day? Will a wealthy, attractive guy lose his job and be forced to take a better paid, easier gig as on-air NFL analyst? Not exactly Rocky, is it?

Not surprisingly, the non-sports sports movie tends to go bust at the box office. Moneyball and Jerry Maguire are exceptions, largely because of fine scripts by Aaron Sorkin and Cameron Crowe respectively. Trouble With the Curve and Draft Day, though, were box-office flops. Curve grossed about $36 million domestic. Draft Day, as of May 14, had grossed just under $28 million, and Million Dollar Arm looks likely to do the same. This despite A-list stars in the lead roles.

By comparison, consider 42, a sports movie with actual sports action in it. Starring a then-unknown Chadwick Boseman, the film was a smash last spring, grossing more than $95 million. In other words, movies about sports remain good business. Movies about the business of sports are not.