Scripted Sports Series In Play for Networks, Streaming Services

'Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty' on HBO
(From l.): John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Jason Clarke as Jerry West in HBO’s 'Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.' (Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

Networks and streaming services are looking to capitalize on the appeal of athletic competition with a roster of scripted comedies and dramas set in the world of sports. 

The CW’s February launch of football-themed All-American spinoff All-American: Homecoming and HBO’s March 6 premiere of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, about the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s, add to a lineup of sports-themed shows already competing for viewers. 

“When you have a show that features the NBA or other sports leagues, you’re bringing in a built-in audience that already knows your product,” TV sports analyst Lee Berke said. “That allows you to then build around viewers that already are familiar with the product.” 

Sports-based shows are nothing new — programs like NBC’s Friday Night Lights, HBO’s Ballers, IFC’s Brockmire and BET Plus’s The Game have been around for years.

Also: HBO Drops Video Trailer for 'Winning Time: The Rise of The Lakers Dynasty'

But the viewer migration to streaming services has amplified the value of live sports events on the traditional television platform, with such programming garnering some of linear TV’s biggest audiences. NBC’s February 13 telecast of Super Bowl LVI drew more than 101 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The NBA All-Star Game drew some 6.3 million viewers to TNT and TBS on February 20, up 6% from 2021, according to Nielsen. 

Cutting Through the Clutter

With more than 559 scripted shows on TV and streaming services in 2021, according to FX Networks, networks see sports-themed programming as a way to break through the clutter.

Disney Plus last year renewed two freshman sports-centric shows: Big Shot, starring John Stamos as an ousted men’s college basketball coach offered a chance for redemption by coaching a high school girls’ basketball team; and The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, a series loosely based on the 1990s film The Mighty Ducks about a wayward youth hockey team. 

No recent sports-themed show has enjoyed the success of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso, which stars Jason Sudeikis as an American college football coach who is hired to manage a top-flight English professional soccer team. The series drew a record 20 Primetime Emmy Award nominations in its freshman year, with the series winning the 2021 Emmy for outstanding comedy series. 

“Apple TV Plus caught lightning in a bottle with Ted Lasso,” Berke said. “The show is well-written and funny but the backdrop of sports and soccer resonates with a lot of viewers and has helped the show find an audience.”

Executives say successful sports-themed shows have to balance the dynamics and influence of sports both on and off the field, which isn’t always a slam dunk for producers. 

Sports and Life Stories

The CW’s All-American: Homecoming follows a tennis player and a baseball prospect during their first year at a historically Black university. Series executive producer Nkechi Okoro Carroll said the show uses sports as a backdrop to highlight the pressures young elite athletes face dealing with both college life and athletic excellence. 

“The series brings this issue of this pressure on athletes and especially athletes of color,” Carroll said at January’s TCA Winter Press Tour. “How do you deal with it, and how do you rise above and still get out there and play the game and you have to play? It is something that you will see across the series.” 

Shows like HBO’s Winning Time face the  even more difficult prospect of effectively portraying real-life athletes both on and off  the court, the series’ producer and stars said during the show’s recent TCA press session.

“It’s a basketball show, so I’m just trying to make sure that any basketball is on point,” said Quincy Isaiah, who stars as Lakers great Magic Johnson. “I wanted to make sure that that’s something I could look back on and [say] … I looked like him on the court.”  

Added Winning Time executive producer Rick Barnes: “We don’t just show them as basketball players — we show them as human beings. Being able to get to the other side of who they are as people takes up just as much real estate.” 

Berke expects more networks to take a swing at sports-themed shows in an effort to score with viewers through appealing and recognizable programming. ■

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.