In the world of entertainment, sports covers a large segment. People will tune in to watch their favourite team play their favourite sport. Monday Night Football has aired since 1970. Hockey Night in Canada predates that, with the first match airing in 1952. Baseball’s Major League Game of the Week began in 1953. The Olympics generate billions for the networks showing the Games. Every game is its own narrative, from tight, close games that need extra time before there is a winner to blow outs. The draw for the audience is the nature of the sport, the competitors, and the competition. To quote ABC’s Wide World of Sport, it’s, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Sports are big business, with millions of fans, a potential audience for studios to try to attract. The temptation is too much to resist, so studios don’t even try. Resistance is futile. Can sports be adapted to a medium that requires plot and characterization? American coverage of the Olympics, both summer and winter, adds a narrative for American competitors, but most sports broadcasts focus on what’s happening on the field of play.
One issue is that most sports aren’t one and done, especially team sports. To determine the finalists for playoffs, each time needs to meet the others at least twice, once in the home city, once at the opposition’s. The number of games in a season is limited by the amount of days available and how much exertion is needed during a game. Baseball, with its 162-game season, is one of the longer seasons, though the sport doesn’t require as many rest days as, say, hockey, which has 82 games in a season. With a season, losing a game is just a setback, not the end of the world. The ebb and flow of a season can also provide more drama for a movie or TV series. Injuries, trades, and rivalries both internal and external, personal and team can cause complications.
Another issue when adapting a sport to a fictional form is that there’s only so much time available in both film and TV. Baseball and football can last at least two to three hours. Hockey, soccer, and basetball, both being more fast paced, still can take up to two hours to play a full game, including intermissions and stoppages in play. During the season, the audience may prefer to watch an actual game than a fictional version. Fortunately, in film and TV, editing is a thing, and the key scenes can be shown without necessarily showing the slower moments.
TV series go the season route. Dragging out a game for multiple episodes won’t keep an audience. The passage of time and the build up to the big game, whether it’s a key match against a rival team or the make-or-break game to get into the playoffs, creates tension over the season. However, even series not focused on a sport may have an episode focused on a game. Baseball tends to be the sport of choice, with WKRP‘s “Baseball” and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” being prime examples. Other sports do get featured, though; Jack of All Trades had a football episode, combined with Thanksgiving, with “One, Two, Three: Give Me Lady Liberty”*.
The goal of a sports adaptation is to feature the sport. If what happens on screen doesn’t resemble what the audience expects, the adaptation is not going to perform well either in ratings or at the box office. The nature of the adaptation – comedy, drama, action – will determine just what the audience will accept. A comedy can have the more bizarre plays happen; dramas tend to build off the more spectacular and intense plays.
The key to adapting a sport to film or television is to focus less on the game’s play and more on the characters involved. If an audience wanted to just watch a game, there are multiple ways of doing so. For fiction, the story is the draw. Underdogs competing against all odds. The last hurrah of an aging player. The rivalry between star players. Those are draws for a sports-based movie or TV series. The adaptation must present a narrative, something that a game doesn’t provide.
Sports is big business. Audiences for sports can get huge, both domestically and internationally. Studios can’t ignore the potential audiences for sports adaptations. But studios do have to make sure that the draw of both the sport and the fiction are balanced.