“Look at the hops on this guy, there was nobody like him,” an enthusiastic Stanley Sugerman, played by Adam Sandler in Netflix’s newly released Hustle, exclaims.
Sugerman’s excitement is in reaction to a video of former basketball player Julius Erving throwing down slam dunks at 63. The scene is an ode to a man who was one of the best at his craft. A call to the past.
That idea is also central to where some experts say the sports film finds itself today. Once a titan of industry, churning out classics like Rocky, Rudy or The Sandlot, the genre is now a grizzled veteran among a new class of content.
Audiences have long connected with the themes involved in a sports film, says Lorna Schultz Nicholson, a former university rowing coach and sports writer based in Edmonton.
“Sports are fast and furious and have highs and lows,” she said.
Vish Khanna, who hosts the podcast Kreative Kontent and is an assistant editor with Exclaim! magazine, similarly points to the tension and arcs of sports as storytelling techniques that he says audiences are inherently drawn to.
Despite this, Hustle is just one of a handful of major sports-related releases to come out this year, along with Home Team, Into the Wind and Jersey. (Compare that to 2000, a year featuring classics such as Remember the Titans and The Replacements that saw eight major sports movies released.)
The film follows Sugerman, a player scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Sugerman, who’s tired of travelling on the road, aspires to become a coach so he can spend more time with his family. While scouting in Spain, Sugerman comes across Bo Cruz, an unknown phenom, who Sugerman thinks could be his team’s ticket to a championship.
So, why are we seeing this decline of audience-favourite sport films?
New world, new rules
Khanna attributes this change, in part, to the rise of social media. He says sports movies were once used as a way to tell stories about athletes, giving the average audience member an entry point into their lives.
But now, we’re living in a “remarkable time to get to know athletes,” he said, where the audience already has direct access to their favourite athletes’ lives.
Jonathan Filipovic, a professor in the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., who has examined the role of sports in film and literature in some of his classes, agrees that we’re in the midst of an unprecedented time when it comes to connecting with athletes.
“We know everything about where the athlete came from and what they had to overcome,” he said. “It really becomes a challenge to dramatize that.”
But, it’s more than just social media at play here, says Khanna. The advancement of technology has also changed the way we watch and engage with sports. Khanna says real sporting events are shown to us in a way that simply wasn’t around in decades past.
“The way they broadcast the games are so realistic, I feel like they actually borrow from filmmaking.”
Khanna says this can be seen in the current NHL playoffs, where the use of techniques such as multiple camera angles and the incorporation of drones make us feel closer than ever to the sport and its athletes.
This can also be found in Hustle. The use of close-up camera shots and humanizing of real athletes through things like training sequences are what make the film work, he adds.
But Filipovic says a saturation of content, albeit through social media, countless streaming services and even movies from other genres has left the themes and stories of sports movies feeling too familiar for audiences to care as much as they once may have.
He says tropes that were once specific to the sports film have been appropriated by other genres.
“If you wanted the underdog story, you used to go and watch a sports film, and now you can get that in a lot of different contexts and in a much more popular package at the moment.”
He cites superhero movies — especially Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel — as filling that niche today.
The intersection between sports and culture
These developments have led to a blending of sports and culture in real life, says Filipovic. With a greater access to these athletes, he said, “popular culture and sports has kind of intersected.”
That’s left us with storylines that we can follow in real-time, rather than just looking at fictional representations in a movies, says Filipovic.
“For a long time athletes were restricted … they play the sports, they do endorsements. And occasionally you might have someone appear in a in a film, but it was really rare.”
Now, athletes are increasingly appearing in films, says Filipovic, who points to Hustle and another recent Adam Sandler movie, Uncut Gems, which features former NBA star Kevin Garnett.
Hustle, too, features dozens of current and former NBA players. Some play themselves, while others appear as fictional characters.
Khanna says the way these stories are told is likely going to continue to change — and we’re already seeing that happen.
The Ted Lasso playbook?
When it comes to telling sports stories, Khanna says studios are likely looking at trends to decide what to put out. He points to the success of Apple TV+ streaming hit Ted Lasso.
The series follows the story of an American football coach, hired to coach an English soccer team despite knowing nothing about the sport. He uses his relentless optimism to try to make up for his lack of knowledge.
“It’s an excellent example of telling a story based around a sport, but really it’s about relationships,” Khanna said.
Schultz Nicholson also thinks streaming services will put out more sports-related content in the future. She says there’s an opportunity for these services to engage with an audience that’s been less active in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID has [led to] kids not being physical anymore and I think we need to get them back into being physical and sports is one way to do that.”
Given all these factors, is there still a demand for sports stories?
Khanna says yes, even though the formula we know could change, the demand for sports movies will always be there.
“You relate to them [athletes] through their skill and how they persevere,” he said.
“If films can continue to find the human element … I think they’ll do well.”