Sports

'Ballers' on HBO Aims to Be Rare Sports-Themed Series With Winning Game Plan

Greg Braxton
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The new HBO show Ballers counts on the current sports frenzy, sharp writing and the massive appeal of former wrestling star turned leading man Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. "The Rock".

The record-breaking ratings accompanying the tsunami of recent sports blockbusters, from the NBA Finals to the Stanley Cup playoffs to the Triple Crown to the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bout, proves one of life’s most undeniable truths — America is stricken with sports fever.

But despite the phenomenal behemoth of live athletics on TV, it’s a whole other ballgame when it comes to the prime-time scripted arena. Comedies and dramas set in the sports world during the last few decades have not had winning records.

Among the numerous losses are FX’s boxing drama “Lights Out,” USA Network’s football comedy “Necessary Roughness” and ABC’s baseball family comedy “Back in the Game” with James Caan. Even “The Bad News Bears,” a hit in theaters, struck out on the small screen. And despite its critical acclaim, “Friday Night Lights” never drew a large audience.

The new HBO show “Ballers” seeks to end the losing streak, counting on the current sports frenzy, sharp writing and the massive appeal of former wrestling star turned leading man Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock.” The series, starting June 21, centers on a former football player (Johnson) at a crossroads between getting his own life together and being a mentor to current football players caught up in the bling and adoration of the game.

“Ballers” joins two other sports-related series trying to score points with viewers. Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse,” about a young basketball star who signs a multimillion-dollar contract and moves with his family to Atlanta, has moved into its second season (LeBron James is an executive producer). And DirecTV is taking its chances with “Kingdom,” which is anchored in mixed martial arts.

HBO is putting heavy muscle behind “Ballers,” aware that series anchored in sports are not always slam dunks.

“We went in knowing this is a high bar,” says Michael Lombardo, president of programming for HBO. “Given the amount of time sports spends in the collective consciousness of this country, it’s been an area that people have been less successful in mining on a fictional level.”

Although HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” and FX’s fantasy football romp “The League” have devoted followers, many others have wound up in the loss column. Casualties in the last few decades include “Playmakers,” ESPN’s 2003-04 drama about a fictional football team (the NFL was openly critical of the portrayal of drug use, infidelity, racism and homophobia on the show, which lasted 10 episodes), CBS’ baseball series “Clubhouse” and HBO’s horse racing drama “Luck.”

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said scripted series just can’t compete with the accessibility and adrenaline of live sports. “There are lots of great sports movies,” he said. “It’s not hard to tell these stories in two hours, but it’s harder to do in a longer form. We’re still waiting for the first great sports series, like ‘The West Wing’ was the first great series about politics.”

Robert Wuhl, who starred in and produced “Arliss,” a HBO series centered on a pro sports agent that became known for its cameos of famous athletes, says the many writers of sports shows do not fully develop characters and situations. They typically tell their stories from the point of view of the fan, “and the fan only cares about one thing,” Wuhl points out. “Winning and losing.”

“Ballers” packs more edge than most sports-related series. Filled with raunch, outrageous behavior, debauchery, women in bikinis and coarse language, “Ballers” plays like a revamp of “Entourage” spiced with flavorings from “Arliss,” which aired on HBO from 1996 to 2002.

The producers of “Ballers” emphasize that even though the show is set in the world of sports, it is not a so-called sports series. There are no big games. Even though the names of real teams are used (Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys), the majority of the action takes place off the field.

“It’s about the short life span of a pro player, where the highs are so high — the comps, the women, the lifestyle,” Lombardo says. “But the minute it ends, there’s no second act. And the show looks at how hard that is. There’s no rule book on how to deal with that. It’s the journey of a man and his life after football.”

Of course, “Ballers’” MVP is Johnson, who has had a significant career after wrestling. The series begins only a few weeks after the opening of his summer earthquake epic, “San Andreas,” which has brought in more than $120 million domestically at the box office, and a few months after “Furious 7,” which had a box-office take of more than $350 million.

“Dwayne gets the sport, and he loves the sport, and he has enormous charisma,” Lombardo says, and the close timing of the recent films and the series is a clear positive. “At the end of the day, though, in our experience, what that will get us is that people will be interested in tuning in. What our job is will be to get people to stick with the show, and you don’t get that just with star power. You get that with viewers being engaged with the stories and the characters.”

Though the excitement and glamour of sports have often been tough for TV producers and writers to mold into scripted series, some shows have effectively utilized athletics as a device for humor or drama. ABC’s “Sports Night,” which premiered in 1998 and lasted two seasons, focused on the chaotic behind-the-scenes dynamics of a nightly sports cable news show. “Coach,” starring Craig T. Nelson as the put-upon coach of a fictional college football team, was a viewer favorite during much of the 1990s. (NBC has announced it is reviving the series, with Nelson again starring.) “The Game” on BET centered on the women involved with the players on a fictional San Diego football team.

Lack of authenticity has been one problem faced by sports-related series. For legal and practical considerations, fictional teams are used in most series, distancing the story from reality.

“Sports documentaries are more popular than ever,” said Courtney Cox, a former ESPN producer. “People don’t want to watch the fake version. When they see fictional team names, that’s the tip-off that it’s not real. There’s no connection to real life.”

“Ballers,” however, is set in NFL reality — the Miami Dolphins are prominent. Some of the outrageousness on-screen, including drug and alcohol use, may give league officials pause, particularly since the NFL is not involved with the production.

The makers of the series are hopeful that viewers connect with the euthenics of the hero’s emotional journey. “It’s not about playing ball, but we think football fans will love it,” Lombardo says. “We think football owners will love it.”

‘BALLERS’

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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