I have to be honest, I’m not a sports fan. But I love sports movies. That might sound illogical but when you consider that sports movies run the gambit of genres (sports/comedy, sports/romance, sports/bio-pic and sports/drama) there’s a lot to like. So, what are the common elements to a sports movie regardless of the genre its married to?
It’s about the Underdog
Your protagonist has to be the underdog. This is true even when you’re writing about athletes at the top of their game. The recent Battle of the Sexes is about Billie Jean King who, at the time, was the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world. How was she an underdog? Well, the film clearly shows that she, and the other women players, are being underpaid. And, also that she’s just beginning to recognize her attraction to other women. Even though she’s a proven winner, she’s still an underdog with a lot at stake.
It’s about the Big Game
One of the things that make sports movies easy to write (and enjoyable) is that the outward goal is always clearly defined. The underdog wants to win the big game. Usually, you want to set-up the big game early in your script. Definitely no later than the midpoint. Rocky gets the chance to fight Apollo Creed. The high school football team has a shot at the state championship. The skater from an impoverished background gets a chance to go to the Olympics.
Once you’ve set up the big game, you know what your third act will be.
It’s about Winning
Yes, I see you waving your hand in the back. You’re right. Sports movies don’t always end with the hero winning the big game. But that doesn’t mean your story isn’t still about winning. Your main character has to win something even if it’s not the big game. In Battle of the Sexes, which has a dual protagonist structure, Bobby Riggs loses the game but saves his marriage in the process. And so, he wins.
Another great example is Bring it On. The girls at the rich high school always win the championship. The girls at the poor high school deserve to win. Even though the girls from the rich high school lose, they learn important lessons about sportsmanship and become better people because of it. By losing they win.
Even when the characters win, they should learn that winning isn’t everything. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a sports bio-pic about Rocky Graziano (and the inspiration for Rocky). At the end of that film, after a very up and down life, Rocky wins the big fight. He and his wife are in the backseat of a convertible during a ticker-tape parade. He tells her that someday he’s going to lose and that’s okay.
It’s about the Romance
Speaking of Rocky, one of its iconic moments is when Rocky screams out “Adrian!” after losing the big fight (but winning because he fights a great fight). He loses the fight but he wins the girl. Romance is a huge element in most sports elements.
Whether it drives the plot, as in Tin Cup or Bull Durham, or if it’s a subplot as in Rocky, romance is often a vital element to a sports movie. Trophies are nice but an audience doesn’t connect with them emotionally. An audience connects with the idea of winning love.
Even in a film like A League of Their Own, where the main character’s husband is off fighting World War II, romance is an important element for the other characters while the main character and the coach have a non-romantic relationship that hits some of the beats of a romance.
It’s about the Sports
It’s vitally important in a sports movie that you show the sports. The two main beats you’ll probably need to include (and there will likely be more) are the training sequence and the big game. The training sequence is almost always there and needs to show the underdog working harder than anyone else. It serves two purposes, first it shows that the main character could win and that they deserve to win. The big game in the third act, if you’ve built your story well, should be suspenseful.
It’s important to remember when you’re writing your script, that your sports sequences are going to play longer than the traditional one-minute a page rule. Let’s say you have five sports sequences of various lengths. If your total script is 120 pages you’re movie could actually be 135 or 140 minutes which is probably too long for this type of film. You want to take a little time and trim your script down before someone else does.
If you haven’t given writing a sports movies much thought, think about it. They can be really fun and appeal to a larger audience than it might seem.
So what are some of your favorite sports movies?