In recent months we have continued to see the crossover of sport and entertainment, be it Drake playing a bigger role with the Toronto Raptors brand management, or Hollywood movers and shakers like Peter Guber and Thomas Tull taking more active roles in areas on the business side of sport. While certainly not new in many ways; Bob Hope once owned part of the Cleveland Indians, CBS controlled the Yankees for Years, Fox the Dodgers etc., the move of real-life drama to the big screen appears to be happening with more frequency now than ever before. One of the reasons is that sport, perhaps more than any other area of life, has all the great elements that makes movies successful; heroes and villains, agony and ecstasy, real life success and failure, beauty and ugliness, truth and myth. Guber, who now is part of the ownership group of the Dodgers, the Golden State Warriors, and Mandalay Sports, has been a longtime believer in the art of storytelling in business, and has used that narrative to great success in entertainment and sports business, in addition to his teaching. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern has long said that sports was the first and ultimate reality TV show, before the genre really took off, so it shouldn’t come as that great a surprise to see the genre of “sports entertainment” taking off on a new level in Hollywood.
The question is will it work, and will sports as entertainment cross over to bring more sports fans to the box office, and more casual fans to follow sport? We will soon find out.
The latest two experiments open last weekend, with Lionsgate’s “Draft Day” and “50 to 1,” an independently-produced film about 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. The NFL invested heavily, maybe not in dollars but in authentic brand exposure, to help push “Draft Day” along. Like “42” was for Major League Baseball last summer, “Draft day” became an amazing marketing tool for the league. The coverage of the making of the film was on par with any other Hollywood offering in recent years, with business and entertainment stories running as far as 18 months before the premiere. All that ancillary exposure was something the league could never actually purchase, but is invaluable in growing the brand. I had a first-hand account of that exposure recently when in a meeting, a young woman who was decidedly not a sports fan said she had been following the development of the movie for over a year and actually watched the NFL Combine this year, and was very intrigued by all the testing and skill that these future NFL players were involved with. That type of casual crossover may be extreme, but it the type of halo effect that a big-budget film can bring to sport, and vice versa. “50 to 1” on the other hand, was small budget but effective in its own way to again expose new audiences to the drama of horse racing at a time of year when the Kentucky Derby is coming into focus. It certainly wasn’t the mega-marketing tool that “Draft Day” was for the NFL, but it was a solid entrée for a sport that is really pushing to get its footing back in the mainstream.
These two releases are not outliers either. There is a full slate of films either in production or on the horizon where sport and entertainment will mix. “Million Dollar Arm,” the Disney-led story of two Indian boys who learn the game of baseball, will be out in May, “When The Game Stands Tall,” the amazing story of deLasalle High School in California follows this summer, “Foxcatcher,” a wrestling themed real life story of murder and intrigued will hit Cannes and be out in the fall, while films about Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (with Will Farrell on board to play the hustling and aging Riggs), and Vince Lombardi all are also slated for 2015 and beyond.
Do these projects actually work? Depends on how you view the end game. There have been crossover hits in the genre, “Moneyball,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Blind Side,” “Talladega Nights,” “Rush,” that have gotten the full buy in and marketing support of the leagues they represent. Those films draw interest from the most talented of writers, directors and stars interested in not just sport but the narrative as well, and as a result, no matter what the box office dollars end up being, they become massive marketing opportunities for the brands involved at really minimal cost to the NFL, NASCAR, MLB etc. The best of worlds has these films translating into the massive box office success outside the States for the company releasing the film, an “Invictus,” for example, which a film about soccer or racing or rugby can do much better than say, “42” which could have limited appeal in places like Asia or the Baltic States where baseball and the Jackie Robinson story are not as interesting or well known. Then you also have the films that can do well because they push the controlled reality of the leagues and can pain a little harsher or edgier angle that the marketing groups may not want to help with, such as Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” A mega-hit at the box office about football, but not an NFL mark or logo anywhere in sight. There is still an argument to be made that any well done, well marketed film about sport raises the buzz level, and that too helps.
So who wins in this new genre? Do these films have to be critical successes to be successful? Again depends on what the overall goal is. If you are Hollywood you want to get ROI at the box office obviously, but you understand the landscape of the sale, and getting the exposure from all the assets a league may have to market a film offsets the dollars you would have to spend in a traditional film marketing budget. If you are the league or the athlete, you can see this as a cost and message controlled vehicle to expand the brand, without having to risk millions on self-producing. You like the partnership, you love the exposure, and you have little risk on the back end so long as the story is somewhat interesting and well marketed. You have tremendous opportunity for exposing not just your league brand, but your brand partners to a larger audience through film or other entertainment venues like Broadway. That woman in the meeting a few weeks ago, you hope, is proof that your plan has worked. Most importantly for both parties is that the story line is well maintained. If you are dealing with sport, and all of these films recently and going forward are based on actual events, you know what the outcome is, and what the response from at least the hardcore follower has been. There is little sell-in to the core audience, they get it and they loved it when it happened, now it’s time to re-tell the tale to the larger audience. It’s not “Bull Durham” or “Field of Dreams,” which had a little more risk as they were not actual events, so there is much less of a risk.
Will this genre continue to grow, and will it expand beyond the borders of great U.S. stories as well? The marketplace will certainly tell us, but for now it looks like it is telling us that the genre is working, and if that’s true there are certainly no shortage of stories that can be told to a larger audience than ever before. That’s good news for entertainment business, and even better news for great crossover storytellers like Guber, Tull, Disney and others, and its great news for sports business.