Sports Movies are riddled with clichés, perhaps more so than any other genre beyond the equally struggling Romantic Comedy. So how do you write great sports movies without falling into the traps of those that have come before?
Let’s begin by stating the unavoidable cliché — the underdog story.
The reason sports dramas are so coveted within the eyes of audiences worldwide is because people love to watch the underdog win against all odds. It injects us with hope as we live in a world dominated by the media that often focuses on rich and successful athletes. There’s a reason the New England Patriots are hated by so many — because they win. And beyond winning, they have dominated their sport like no other with unparalleled success.
Needless to say, most audiences aren’t going to embrace a movie about a character or team that is at the top of their game — where’s the conflict in that?
1. Conflict Drives the Sports Drama
The underdog story thrives because of the conflict of being an underdog — whether it’s a character that has never had their shot because of whatever circumstance, or a character that has fallen from grace after being at the top of their game.
Conflict is what is engaging in every story within every genre. It drives the characters. It challenges them. It keeps the audience in suspense as they wonder how the character is going to overcome each and every obstacle that they are forced to face.
A great sports drama is driven by those obstacles and the suspense they create.
Ironically, audiences know that the protagonists are going to prevail in some way, shape, or form by the end of the movie.
We know that Rocky is either going to go the distance or prevail against a seemingly unbeatable character. We know that the Cleveland Indians are going to win by the end of Major League. We know that the Titans are going to band together despite racial boundaries and succeed as a team by the end of Remember the Titans.
The secret to crafting great sports movies is by not focusing on the what (what they need to accomplish) — but on the how and why (how they’re going to beat that impossible force and why they need to do that).
2. It’s About the How and Why — Not the Big Game or Big Fight
It’s the journey, not the destination. How many times have we heard those wise words of wisdom? It’s so true when it comes to any great sports movie.
The reason that the Rocky franchise continued to succeed — with the exception of Rocky V for some (I love it) — was because audiences were enthralled with how Rocky was going to handle the latest challenge and why he was able to succeed.
In Rocky II, he had to overcome the pressure of repeating his success, handling his newfound fame, living up to expectations, contending with the fact that maybe his first fight with Apollo was a fluke, and on top of everything else, his wife was in a coma which forced him to remove his focus from the fight to her recovery as he slept by her hospital bedside.
In Rocky III, he had to handle the realization that his success was the result of Mickey assigning him to title bouts with fighters that weren’t worthy contenders. He had to deal with the challenge of a worthy opponent that everyone believed to be an unbeatable adversary. He then had to deal with losing his title at the same time that he lost his mentor. He finally had to forget all that he knew as he trained with his previous foe in Apollo Creed while he dealt with his grief.
In Rocky IV, he had to deal with losing his now good friend Apollo to the hands of the scientifically unbeatable monster that was Ivan Drago. He wanted to avenge Apollo’s death, despite his soulmate and wife Adrian telling him that he couldn’t win. He decided to train within the Soviet Union during the turbulent political times of the Cold War, away from everything he knew and was comfortable with.
In Rocky Balboa, he was an over-the-hill has been that hadn’t fought in years, mourning the loss of Adrian — challenged to take on a titleholder haunted by the reputation of never having beaten a legend like Rocky.
In each of these cases, the draw of these successful films was never about the fact that Rocky had to face a champion, later face Apollo Creed again, face a more brutal fighter like Clubber Lang, face a scientifically engineered killer like Ivan Drago, or win a fight as the aging underdog. It was always about how he worked to accomplish those things and why he was able to succeed.
The training revealed how he was going to do it as he overcame physical and mental obstacles.
The why was revealed in each film when:
Adrian awoke from her coma in Rocky II and finally gave her support of him to win.
Adrian gave him the confidence and “kick in the butt” he needed when he wasn’t giving his all during his training in Rocky III.
Rocky wanted to avenge his friend’s death in Rocky IV.
Rocky wanted to deal with the demons he had inside of him at an old age during Rocky Balboa, alone without his Adrian, while trying to set an example for his son that when life gets you down you have to get back up.
It’s not enough to just have a character go up against an opponent and throw some good punches, toss some good pitches, catch some touchdown passes, and win or prove a point by the end.
It’s the how and the why that matters most — the journey.
3. The Sport is Just a Disguise
The Rocky films were never about boxing. Jerry Maguire was never about football. Field of Dreams was never about baseball.
Rocky was about an underdog struggling to prove himself. Jerry Maguire was about an overachiever discovering what success in life really was. Field of Dreams was about regret and forgiveness. Each of those films had just a minority of actual boxing, football, or baseball scenes. Everything else related to the sport was just a backdrop — a particular canvas that the story and characters were presented on.
The sports backdrop in a great sports movie is always about using the atmosphere and mythos of the sport to be nothing more than the context in which a character or message-driven story is told. They are metaphors that enhance the themes the characters are struggling with in their lives — whether it’s chasing a dream, standing up for yourself, or learning the true meanings of life.
The actual sport within any given sports movie could, therefore, be interchangeable because it’s really about the story and the characters — with the chosen backdrop of the sport utilized as a vehicle to deliver those elements.
That doesn’t mean that the sports aspect of your sports movie is meaningless — quite the contrary. If anything, the chosen sport and the world within that sport is a writer’s excuse to deliver a character-centered piece. The wise screenwriter knows that a sports movie is really just a disguise to deliver strong drama and characters, so always put full focus on those elements — above any sports-related details, technical terms, or specifics.
4. Challenge the Sports Movie Formula
Yes, the underdog story itself is clichéd. But it’s perhaps the most consistently successful cliché in the history of cinema — especially within the specific genre of the sports movie. So feel free to embrace that. The challenge lies in the hows and whys of the underdog story.
You need to challenge yourself to tell different versions of that underdog story. The clichéd story devices that we’ve seen in most underdog sports movie stories are aplenty — resulting in tempting varied formulas for screenwriters.
- The underdog athlete
- The misfit team
- The team that lacks cohesion
- The big match or the big game
- The surprise and overly talented star player
- The knowledgeable mentor
- The sudden bonding
- The training montage
We’ve seen them all.
The Cleveland Indians that were a group of misfits.
The team that didn’t want to work together because of their differences.
The single big match or game that is the final must-win situation.
The single deus ex machina element — an unexpected power, event, or individual saving a seemingly hopeless situation — of a star player that can give the team the edge they need to win.
The mentor or coach that has the necessary wisdom to pass down, but is often reluctant at first to give it.
The moment where the team or training duo finally begins to bond.
The final training sequence where the protagonists slowly begin to apply their knowledge or strength.
In order to write better sports movies, screenwriters need to do their best to challenge that formula, in any way that they can. You may have to keep some of those elements, but if you follow that formula to a tee, the script is going to be nothing but more of what we’ve already seen.
For years, Hollywood has struggled to offer a true contender for the boxing movie throne that Rocky has clearly sat high upon for decades. Some worthy contenders have come and gone, with varying degrees of success, failure, or audience indifference.
Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior managed to tell a fighter story that challenged the underdog formula in a consistent fashion with much-acclaimed success. And most supporters of it will say that they’d hold it next to the original Rocky as an heir apparent.
Instead of the lowly over-the-hill fighter looking to have a shot at the title, we have two warriors looking to win the big fight — and they are brothers battling their own demons. But it’s not just to win the title. In fact, the actual title or fighting to prove something to themselves (Rocky) is not the main goal for them. They are both fighting for the prize money. One to take care of his family and their impending debts and the other to take care of the family of his fallen brother-in-arms.
The film is void of a single wise mentor, instead offering two. But that mentor formula is challenged by showcasing a recovering alcoholic father trying to relive the glory days and seeking out redemption with one of the brothers…
…while the other is a trusted and loyal friend that doesn’t hesitate to offer his services when the moment calls for them.
The big match formula is challenged because in the final fight we have two fighters facing off against each other, both of whom we are rooting for. We want the dedicated husband and father to win so he can take care of his family. We want the hero Marine veteran to win because of the sacrifice he made for his fellow soldiers and also so that he can take care of his fallen friend’s widowed wife and children.
So as you can see, you can successfully challenge the formulas we’ve seen in sports movies while still retaining what audiences love the most about them — the underdog story.
It’s about creating different story devices or altering them with something new and different.
5. Fact vs. Fiction Sports Stories
While many of the great sports movies are clearly fictional, the current obsession in Hollywood is finding true stories to tell. They believe that audiences are more interested and engaged by movies inspired by or based directly on real-life stories that have actually happened.
The box office numbers tend to back that notion up. Almost 50% of the top box office earners for sports dramas are either inspired by or based on true stories. If you’re writing a sports comedy, nearly all of them are fictional.
So it depends if you’re aiming for dramatic or comedic sports movies.
Sports comedies offer a double punch of difficulty, as far as handling the difficult genre of sports movies along with the difficult genre of writing comedy. Sports comedies like Caddyshack and Major League more often than not excel by sending up whatever sport they are covering — so it would benefit those tackling that sub-genre to find sports that haven’t been covered in sports comedies yet or find corners of already covered sports that audiences haven’t seen, as Bull Durham did so well with the minor league circuit.
With sports dramas, you’re tasked with coming up with the most dramatic and character-driven stories. True stories offer the added edge screenwriters need to justify the worth of Hollywood taking the risk to tell that story.
So unless your fictional sports drama is something new and original — or at least something that challenges the already established formulas — you may want to consider venturing out and finding true stories that you can seek out inspiration from or gather the necessary story rights to lesser-known but inspiring stories.
At the novice level, you the screenwriter likely can’t afford the rights to tell the big true stories found within the professional arenas, but there are plenty of smaller stories that you can find either locally or those that have slipped through the grasp of Hollywood intellectual property gatherers.
Whatever sport you choose, and whatever story you choose to tell within the context of that sport, the secret to writing better sports movies is introducing as much conflict as you can within your character’s journey to greatness.
You have to realize that the sport is just the backdrop, used as a canvas to showcase compelling dramatic (or hilarious) stories and compelling characters.
In order to stand out from the rest, you have to directly challenge the established clichés and formulas by creating better versions or replacing them with something new and original. And finally, you have to decide whether your sports movie screenplay calls for a true story to build upon or if you have a strong enough original idea that packs enough punch to entice Hollywood beyond their obsession with true stories.
Sports movies are some of the most coveted viewing experiences for audiences — but they can’t be retreads of what we’ve already seen. They need to be better. And these five key strategies will help you accomplish that in your own sports scripts.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies