Credit: Gage Skidmore
Despite national broadcasts of popular sports bringing in viewers in their millions, the primetime sports-themed TV show has struggled to gain even a fraction of this audience.
The issue seems to be that these comedies or dramas either risk losing casual viewers by focusing too greatly on the sport itself or turn off sports fans by not devoting enough time to the intricacies of the subject matter.
It is a fine balance that few shows have got right, and even then they have struggled to make the leap from cult-hit to mainstream success. However, a few sport-themed shows have managed to do so and proved that when done right, professional sports can prove an inspired backdrop.
Footballers’ Wives (BBC America, 2002-2006)
This British smash hit gained something of a cult status when it was imported stateside in the early 2000s, securing enough viewers for an ill-fated pilot starring Lucy Lawless to be commissioned.
Footballers’ Wives was a shamelessly trashy soap opera which used the notorious reputation of the English Premier League’s soccer star players to full effect. The Premier league is massively popular around the world for players, fans, bettors, who wager millions on soccer, and the media. It was therefore in theory a perfect subject for a popular soap. Heavily influenced by primetime American soap operas such as Dynasty, the show featured bed-hopping, backstabbing and face-slapping in abundance.
Diving into the debauchery and excess of the players and spouses of fictional football team Earls Park, Footballers’ Wives shocked viewers on both sides of the pond with its controversial plot lines. Partly filmed at the real-life Selhurst Park – the London home of Crystal Palace, who, in a reflection of soccer’s popularity in the sports betting, are at the time of writing 5/2 to beat Stoke at the end of March – when it came to Footballer’s Wives, viewers were more likely to be betting on who scored off the pitch rather than on it.
Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-2011)
Despite gathering critical acclaim throughout its run, Friday Night Lights failed to ever build on its passionate but small core audience. Teetering near cancelation throughout most of its run, the show finally came to an end – after five seasons – in 2011.
Friday Night Lights focused on the small community of Dillon, Texas and how the trials and tribulations of the high-school’s football team affected the town as a whole. The show featured a large ensemble cast, with each episode’s focus rotating to accommodate each of them. Whilst football coach Eric Taylor – played with impressive warmth by Kyle Chandler, formed the emotional core of the series, Friday Night Lights was never afraid of bringing other characters to the foreground when needed.
The ensemble nature of the show meant that it dealt with numerous issues throughout its run, all filtered through the pressures and implications of semi-professional sport. Friday Night Lights was never interested in flashy or headline grabbing plot-lines, instead focusing on the intimate and every day dramas that most of us experience throughout our lives.
Eastbound and Down (HBO, 2009-2014)
HBO are known to stick with quality series, even if viewing figures are not spectacular, and that is exactly what the cable broadcaster did with Eastbound and Down. Indeed, the show has been allowed to wrap-up its narrative with a final season being commissioned in 2014.
Focusing on the return of burnt-out Major League Baseball player Kenny Powers to his hometown and his reluctant taking of a physical education teaching job, Eastbound and Down was exquisitely awkward with an apologetically egotistical protagonist.
Propelled by a stellar central performance by Danny McBride, the show featured sharp scripts, a flair for visual gags and a cast of sublimely realised supporting-characters whose spirited interactions gave the show heart.