It’s Game On for New Scripted Series

Several cable networks will enter the sports arena with new dramas and specials to resonate around the theme of sports and competition.

Classic hits like The White Shadow, Coach and Arli$$ — as well as more recent breakthroughs like Friday Night Lights, FX’s The League and BET’s The Game — have successfully melded the elements of sports action and entertainment. Mostly, though, the television field is littered with shows that have struck out trying to translate the excitement of sports into scripted form.

“Sports is the situation that creates high stakes in the show, but it’s the experience of characters that’s most important,” Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik said. The premium channel later this year will premiere the LeBron James-backed comedy Survivor’s Remorse. The series follows the life of basketball star Cam Calloway, who struggles with the transition from an impoverished life to making it big in the National Basketball Association.

The key to a successful sports-themed series is to use the competition as a backdrop to the reallife adventures of its characters. He also believes having NBA superstar James and his team backing Survivor’s Remorse brings authenticity to the project, as well as instant marketability.

Survivor’s Remorse is a great show for that audience because it also deals with universal themes like, ‘I came from one place and now I’m in another place, and now I have to equip myself to who I was and who I want to become,’ ” he said. “It has a high pedigree and should have the ability to market itself and stand out in a crowded programming environment in a way that few others could.”

Sports-themed shows also have appeal to pay TV subscribers who often tune into networks like HBO and Showtime to watch pro boxing and other sports-related news and reality programming. Indeed HBO, which last November ended a successful four-season run with baseball-themed comedy series Eastbound and Down starring Danny McBride, has ordered Ballers, a new halfhour comedy from actor, pro wrestler and former college football player Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The series, which has yet to secure a premiere date, will follow the lives of a group of former and current football players, according to the network.

On the basic-cable side, ABC Family will examine the world of professional tennis with its original drama pilot Unstrung. The series will follow the lives of a brother and sister looking to move up the ranks of amateur, and eventually professional, tennis.

ABC Family executive director of development and programming Robert Prinz said sports-related themes like competition and hard work, combined with strong characters, resonates with both males and females within its target audience of millenials. The network had a successful three-season run with its gymnastics-themed drama series Make It or Break It, which ended in 2012.

“The high stakes of sports competition provides a great foundation for the type of storytelling our millennial audience loves,” Prinz said. “Our pilot Unstrung — which highlights the professional tennis circuit — combines relationship drama, competition and the wish fulfillment nature of watching the lives of the best in a particular sport.”

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.