For decades, most sports movies were little more than variations of the same story: An athlete or team that’s never gotten a shot captures both victory and the respect of the masses, usually with the help of a wise old coach tormented by personal demons and past failures. Think Seabiscuit, Hoosiers, Major League, The Mighty Ducks, A League of Their Own, 42, Remember the Titans, Rocky, Slap Shot, and countless more. These films have been both noble and crass, and they’ve celebrated virtue and vice alike, but they’ve worked so well because they’re always, at their heart, stories about underdogs and redemption.
Though some recent films including Creed, Race, and Eddie the Eagle hew to this model, the last few years have seen the emergence of a new kind of sports narrative. Thanks to the precipitous rise of fantasy sports and wildly lucrative video games such as the Madden NFL series, audiences are also seeing a slew of works that focus on the business side of the action. Movies such as Moneyball, Draft Day, and Million Dollar Arm, along with TV shows like Ballers, The Agent, and The League, have recast the principal characters of sports-themed stories. Suddenly it’s managers and owners, not players and coaches, who are the heroes.
This shift in narrative coincides with the increased focus on analytics in professional and amateur sports. It also echoes a more general cultural interest in charismatic, visionary entrepreneurs—consider the three movies made to date about Apple’s Steve Jobs, The Social Network, Joy, and the high public profiles of people like Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, and Mark Zuckerberg. As the model for success has shifted from teams to individuals, these new kinds of stories about sports seem to exemplify the essence of the American Dream, where glory and victory is about strategy, vision, and hard work rather than innate talent or ability. But they also celebrate a redistribution of power from the many to the few. In asking fans to root for the wealthy businessmen behind the scenes, these stories lose sight of the big-hearted, populist spirit that makes sports narratives so appealing to begin with.
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Fantasy sports traces its origins to the 1950s, but didn’t come into its most current form until 1980, when the journalist Daniel Okrent created the Rotisserie Baseball League, which introduced the now-common fantasy draft. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), 500,000 people played fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada in 1988, but by 2003, that number had skyrocketed to 15.2 million. After Congress passed a law three years later that defined online fantasy sports as games of skill (which were legal to bet on) rather than games of luck (which weren’t), the industry grew exponentially. As of 2015, the FSTA estimates that the total number of players participating in fantasy sports in North America has grown to 56.8 million. Sixty percent of fantasy players pay league fees, and in the past three years alone, the average amount each participant spends to play has almost tripled, to around $465 a year.
The entertainment industry seems to have taken notice. The increasing dominance of fantasy sports in culture has been reflected in the rise of EA’s wildly successful Madden NFL video-game franchise, whose Draft Champions feature in the game’s 2016 edition gives players a chance to play fantasy football year-round. EA’s website promises the Draft Champions feature will deliver “the challenge and excitement of fantasy football draft night over and over again.” Players can draft and play actual games with their fantasy team, but these games have three-minute quarters (so as not to slow the real action down). Then there’s Connected Franchise Mode, which allows the player to “control every decision [the] team makes—from concession prices to relocation.” What EA Sports promises as the “complete NFL experience” feels more like SimCity than the Super Bowl, but that hasn’t affected its sales in the least: It’s still the most popular football game there is. In fact, its shift from simulating the experience of playing or coaching football to that of owning a team appears to be taking root elsewhere in culture, particularly in Hollywood.
As Hampton Stevens wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, the game has become an afterthought—if it’s shown at all—in this decade’s sports films. Stevens lamented that the ultimate outcome of showing less sports in sports movies was that it made the onscreen story more boring. But this trend also reflects a shift toward a culture that the management and banking researcher T.T. Ram Mohan describes in a piece for Quartz as “CEO-centric.” In this environment, the CEO isn’t just a number-cruncher but also a charismatic visionary. Movies including Moneyball and Draft Day seem to glamorize this kind of autocratic framework, lauding their GMs as lone geniuses and presenting players and coaches as obstacles to be managed.
In Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) ignores the protests of his scouts, his coaches, and his players and uses statistical analysis to (cheaply) cobble together a playoff-bound team. Draft Day follows the Cleveland Browns’ general manager, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), through the day of the NFL draft as he races against the clock to get the players he wants and keep his job. If these descriptions make the films sound more like workplace dramas than sports movies, watching them doesn’t do much to discourage that impression. As far as these films are concerned, baseball and football are no longer sports, but businesses. Rather than show viewers the games, the films show them the money.
Both movies present their heroes (the managers of major-league sports teams, let’s remember) as underdogs fighting the system, even though both belong to the upper echelons of that system. Meanwhile, scouts are buffoons who can be replaced by computers, coaches are egomaniacs who are referred to as “babysitters,” and players are barely people. Moneyball reduces the latter to statistical formulae, rejecting qualities such as charm and star power. While rejecting the allure (and price tag) of a star player might seem to favor those who actually produce, that’s not the case in the film: A player becomes largely invisible once GM Beane acquires him. Draft Day similarly wants nothing to do with athletes. “Do not bother me with your shit,” the Browns general manager Weaver tells his starting quarterback. “I’m working here.”
It’s hard to get much further away from the values of the traditional sports movie. Fans seemed to notice that disconnect in Draft Day, which made a paltry $28 million at the box office (but seems poised for a healthy afterlife on cable). Moneyball’s $75 million gross didn’t make it a monster hit, but its six Academy Award nominations and critical acclaim elevated it to the level of a minor classic.
Both films twist themselves into knots trying to hide the fact that their heroes are one-percenters. Moneyball emphasizes that Billy Beane is a failed ballplayer managing the poorest team in baseball, magically making him a has-been looking to move from rags to riches and prove his worth. Draft Day chooses to portray Weaver as a guy who, despite being the GM of an NFL team, has never gotten his shot. “It was finally supposed to be my season,” he says in one scene. “I just want the team that I want one time.” Weaver may be choking up, but his speech has all the pathos of a billionaire complaining his McLaren will be delivered a week late.
Other stories have built on this businessman-as-hero narrative in different ways. In HBO’s Ballers, currently the network’s third most-successful comedy series ever, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Spencer Strasmore, a charismatic player-turned-financial manager whose dreams of “laying people out” have been replaced with dreams “all about deals and dollars.” A viewer doesn’t need to have played sports to identify with the pressure Spencer feels to put up bigger numbers and keep his bank-account balance above $0. Spencer is so likable and relatable as the everyman struggling to get by that when the Miami Dolphins coach tells him early on that he’d “make one hell of a GM,” it’s easy for viewers to imagine themselves in his shoes and to relish the prospect.
Esquire’s documentary series The Agent follows four sports agents (“real-life Jerry Maguires,” the show brags) as they try to sign a new crop of clients before the NFL draft. Despite the show’s obsession with athleticism, The Agent actively reduces athletes to their stats and prospects: Each player’s rushing yards, 40-yard-dash times, and vertical reaches are dissected over and over again, which makes the show feel like an eight-episode scouting report for someone’s 2016 fantasy team.
If the success of manager-oriented entertainment feels baffling compared to the universal appeal of team-centric stories, the appeal of identifying with bureaucrats over players is best illustrated by FX’s recently concluded sitcom The League. The show revolves around a group of friends so invested in fantasy sports that births, marriages, and deaths are treated less as pivotal life events than as existential threats to the titular fantasy league. Of course, The League is a satire, but when one character proclaims, “We play fantasy football, but let’s live a fantasy life,” it offers insight into the ways in which people see fantasy sports as a way to feel empowered as the bosses of their own imaginary billion-dollar franchises.
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Why does this shift in perspective matter? Isn’t it ultimately better for moviegoers and TV viewers to empathize with heroes who embody entrepreneurial spirit rather than pawns on a chessboard? Isn’t it more fundamentally American to appreciate individual achievement over collective effort?
Yes, and no. 2015’s Concussion offers something of a counterpoint to the valorization of sports CEOs. The film chronicles the efforts of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) to prove the link between the deaths of former NFL players and the repetitive head trauma they experienced during their professional careers. In their pursuit of the almighty dollar, the GMs and owners of the teams (some of them former NFL players) make every attempt imaginable to discredit Omalu and his research. (For the first time ever, the NFL finally admitted the link between football-related injuries and degenerative brain diseases in March—over a decade after Omalu presented his findings.) Concussion shows the human cost of the corporate business practices that Moneyball and Draft Day celebrate unquestioningly.
Several times in Concussion, Omalu praises the American Dream and extolls the virtues of democracy, and it’s in these moments where Concussion broadens (and sharpens) its critique of the CEO-centric culture. These speeches present the league as a threat not just to the safety of players on the field but also to America itself. Concussion doesn’t dwell much on the spectacle of the game, which explains why the only images from football games in the film are archival clips of players getting taken down. And while this strategy makes narrative sense, it’s also the reason why Concussion is a less-than-ideal antidote to CEO-centric sports narratives. Several characters, Omalu included, may comment on the “beauty and grace and power” of football despite its violence (one character even compares it to Shakespeare), but it’s hard to fall in love with a game that you can’t see onscreen.
Creed goes a step further by being completely indifferent to business. In an early scene, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) quits a job at a securities firm to pursue his dreams as a boxer. After that, money is almost never mentioned: The film never discloses the purses for any of the fights, and it writes the all-important promoters out of the boxing world altogether. The only business-related issue that gets real attention from Adonis or his new mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is whether Adonis should take advantage of the fame and glory of his father, Apollo Creed, and fight under his last name. Adonis relents and becomes Creed (there’d be no movie if he didn’t), but the film makes it clear that the decision isn’t about money. It’s about getting the opportunity that he’s been training for—the shot that he, unlike Draft Day’s Sonny Weaver, has earned.
Even in a franchise known for its training montages, Creed stands alone (it’s essentially one long training sequence). The film is so focused on boxing itself that Creed’s first major fight plays out in one shot. This long take is the most exciting and artful sports scene in a decade, demonstrating how no fantasy roster on a screen can match the visual impact and rush of the game itself. The film ends in a way that no film about a GM ever could: with a crowd of fans chanting their hero’s name.
Creed is the rare contemporary film that finds a midpoint between the narratives of the all-powerful general managers and the traditional stories of team-centric success. Its hero is an individual whose success stems from his own extraordinary efforts, but he’s very much helped by others, including his underdog trainer. American business culture may make it seem as though power today resides high above the field in the front office. However, films such as Creed make abundantly clear that no matter how much influence the front office may have, the players still make the plays.