Earlier this month, HBO announced that its long-running news magazine “Real Sports” would be canceled after the current season. Also canceled this month: HBO’s “Winning Time,” the scripted series about the LA Lakers’ transformation in the 1980s under the PT Barnum-esque leadership of Jerry Buss.
When it comes to sports, HBO is turning away from long-form journalism and scripted efforts and instead adding a sports layer to its streaming platform. For an additional $9.99 per month, Max subscribers get access to professional basketball, baseball and hockey games, as well as the NCAA March Madness tournament.
I have no doubt that this is a worthwhile expense for fans who have a vested interest in specific leagues or teams. But it also feels like HBO — and HBO isn’t alone in this — is failing the casual sports viewer.
I wondered how a show like Real Sports managed to last so long. The “60 Minutes”-style reporting style — stiff and devoid of complexity — has felt dated for most of its 29 years. There was recently an episode about dogs and sports. I’m going to look at everything about dogs. And yet it felt like the show had actually run out of energy, ending with host Bryant Gumbel and the show’s correspondents sitting in the studio with their dogs, awkwardly talking about why they all like…dogs. Their stilted back and forth had the sound of aliens trying to approximate human conversation. So no, I’m not shedding a tear over the ending of “Real Sports.”
But it was one of the last remaining shows to recognize that sports stories were compelling. And it was aimed at a general audience rather than hardcore fans looking for endless expertise.
Is there anything else to watch for a generalist like me who doesn’t follow any particular league or team but likes a good story? I can’t talk about statistics, but I can understand the complexities and challenges of a sports drama because they are metaphors for what it means to navigate life. Also: The training montage has been a popular motif since “Rocky”. Are younger generations even familiar with it?
These are dark times. Mid-budget films have all but disappeared from theaters, along with sports films, but they used to be a staple. There was no glamor in the ’70s, from The Bad News Bears to North Dallas Forty to Slap Shot. The ’80s and ’90s were marked by comedies, including “Major League,” “Necessary Roughness” and “Rookie of the Year,” and tearjerkers that even the most stoic viewer couldn’t resist, from “Hoosiers” to “Rudy.” to “Chariots of Fire.” I can’t tell you how many times I watched The Cutting Edge on cable TV in the ’90s alone.
Fewer sports films were made in the 2000s, but they were still in the lineup: “Remember the Titans,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” “The Wrestler,” “Moneyball.”
This number has fallen even further in recent years. There was Adam Sandler’s boring Netflix vehicle Hustle, about a pro scout who recruits a young basketball player from Spain. The less said about Hulu’s White Men Can’t Jump remake, the better.
On the TV side, things don’t look much more promising. “Ted Lasso” is the rare outlier that has reached critical mass. Otherwise, the shows struggled to attract significant enthusiasm or large audiences. Despite the NBA’s popularity as a league and its focus on star players like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Winning Time” failed to generate the viewership that would justify a sequel after its second season. Over on Apple TV+, the great “Swagger,” about young basketball talent, never managed to reach a wider audience, despite sharing so many thematic similarities with the TV adaptation of “Friday Night Lights” that the series only has one The previous generation was successful enough to raise the profile of all of its stars, including Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, as well as younger cast members like Jesse Plemons and Taylor Kitsch.
I’ll never get over the fact that Fox canceled Pitch, in which Kylie Bunbury plays a pitcher in the major leagues, and that sexual tension continues to arise between her and the team’s catcher, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar . The show only aired for half a season in 2016 before the network decided to move on. To this day I see people lamenting the loss of this show.
I’m hopeful for the upcoming Netflix film Nyad, in which Annette Bening plays sports journalist and athlete Diana Nyad, who attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. “Next Goal Wins” by director Taika Waititi will also be released in November.
And there’s never a bad time to discover or rewatch older films. Max recently sent out an email touting his selection of sports films, including the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic “42” starring Chadwick Boseman. But studios and broadcasters can’t rely on library titles alone. You have to make new shows and films, especially ones that reflect our world today.
It’s a shame that Kevin Costner got sucked into the “Yellowstone” vortex, because when he teamed up with writer-director Ron Shelton, they really captured something wonderful about athletes who aren’t stars but aren’t quite ready yet , not yet letting go of their dreams. Some athletes find compelling second careers in real life. Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. worked as a sideline photographer at an NFL game over the weekend. Former pitcher Randy Johnson did the same. This is an interesting career transition and I would definitely watch a fictionalized depiction of it.
What annoys me – and it sounds like such a strong word, but here we are – is that streaming has made sports so isolated that you have to search for what you want and therefore rarely come across anything by chance. That was the genius behind ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” – the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat! – because on any given weekend you could tune in and find yourself watching a track and field meet or ski jumping or cliff diving or… logrolling? Yes, logrolling, as part of the Lumberjack World Championship.
Would viewers mark most of these events in their schedule? Probably not. But if you turned on the TV and it was just there?
You would watch. Oh, you would watch.
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.