Why aren't there more TV shows about pro sports teams? As a subject, pro sports leagues should attract pilots like the Mafia attracts screenplays. It has all the ingredients for a dynamite show: high stakes, big personalities, huge piles of cash, and, you know, sports, which we clearly like watching. Unfortunately, as of now, there are depressingly few good series about pro sports.
The NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and other pro leagues hold enough power to effectively block any TV shows about pro sports that they don't like. They do this despite an apparent hunger by the American public for these types of stories, as evidenced by sports movies. In the absence of fiction to properly situate ourselves in the behind-the-scenes world of pro sports, the American public is left with two polar opposite sources of information: the propaganda put out by the leagues, and the conspiracy theories whispered by independent media. We see very little middle ground.
Currently, TV shows about pro sports generally fall into one of three categories: hard-hitting dramas that get canceled, fluff shows merely using sports as a backdrop (see: Necessary Roughness), and series produced by the leagues themselves.
Playmakers is a perfect example of a drama that hit too hard. ESPN's first original drama series, the show followed the lives of the Cougars, a fictional pro football team. It showed life-altering injuries, mental trauma, drug use, PED use, homophobia, and the omnipresent power of money in sports. It was canceled after one season due to "bullying" and pressure from the NFL. On the flipside, consider a show like Friday Night Lights. It shows life-altering injuries, mental trauma, drug use, PED use, and the power of money in sports. It went on to solid success, running for five seasons. The difference? The high school football leagues of this country do not hold enough power to pressure NBC into canceling anything. Long live Jason Street.
Granted, ESPN is the network with the most to lose by angering a sports league, and they are not the only channel that can produce a drama series. But this is where we see a paradox: any channel that has the right demographic to sustain a pro sports series already entertains that viewership with actual sports. NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, TNT, USA, HBO, etc: these are the channels that you would expect to see a pro sports series on, and they all already show lots of games. The precedent set by Playmakers is clear: the wrong portrayal of sports lands you in the doghouse.
There are successful shows, like Hard Knocks and 24/7, that do dive into the underbelly of sports. These documentary series show issues like locker-room drama, team chemistry, and roster cuts. However, these series are made in conjunction with the leagues themselves. Hard Knocks is co-produced by HBO and NFL Films. It's hard not to imagine the NFL's PR department going through every episode with a fine-toothed comb to make sure the league wasn't being poorly represented.
One could argue that maybe we don't want to watch these shows at all, and that's why they don't get made. Maybe we want to live in the illusion that all athletes are saintly. Maybe we're simply already saturated with sports content. To these arguments, I point to Hollywood. For every feel-good Rudy movie out there, there's a gritty Any Given Sunday. There's a Jerry Maguire. The Wrestler. Raging Bull. The Hurricane. There's a dark side to sports, and we give studios millions in box office and dozens of Oscars for showing it to us. Why can studios do this, while TV networks can't? Well, because studios have no working relationship with the leagues. They are above punishment.
We need these stories, now more than ever. As accusations about performance-enhancing drugs and concussions and everything else wrong with sports get lobbed from the media, ever more powerful marketing campaigns from the leagues try to convince us there's nothing wrong. Who are we to believe? This is where fiction comes in. Its stories sometimes help us wrap our heads around complex issues better than any study or article ever could. If you want to understand the war on drugs, don't watch the news; watch The Wire. If you want to understand high school, watch Freaks and Geeks. If only we had more shows like Playmakers, we could better understand sports.
But it's not in the leagues' interest for us to know everything about sports. It's in their interest for us to believe that every athlete is a philanthropist succeeding solely on natural talent and effort, motivated primarily by loyalty to their team and love of the game. Oh, and they never get concussions.