Does Netflix’s Hustle mark the return of sports movies?

« Look at this guy’s jumps, there was no one like him, » enthused Stanley Sugerman, played by Adam Sandler in the new Netflix movie. Hustleexclaims.

Sugerman’s excitement is in reaction to a video of former basketball player Julius Erving throwing slam dunks at age 63. The scene is an ode to a man who was one of the best in his craft. A call to the past.

This idea is also at the heart of where some experts say the sports film stands today. Once a titan of the industry, producing classics like Rocky, Rudy Where The Sandlotthe genre is now a grizzled veteran among a new class of content.

Audiences have long been interested in the themes of a sports film, says Lorna Schultz Nicholson, a former varsity rowing coach and Edmonton-based sportswriter.

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Author Lorna Schultz Nicholson says the « ups and downs » of sports are what make them great stories and attract such large audiences.

“Sports are fast and furious and have ups and downs,” she said.

Vish Khanna, who hosts the podcast Creative content and is associate editor with Exclaim! magazine, similarly highlights the tension and arcs of sports as storytelling techniques that he says inherently appeal to audiences.

Despite this, Hustle is just one of the few major sports-related releases coming out this year, along with Home team, in the wind and Jersey. (Compare that to 2000, a year with classics like Remember the titans and The replacements which has seen the release of eight major sports films.)

Hernangomez as Bo Cruz and Sandler as Stanley Sugerman in Hustle. (Scott Yamano/Netflix)

The film follows Sugerman, a player scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Sugerman, who is tired of traveling on the road, aspires to become a coach so he can spend more time with his family. While scouting in Spain, Sugerman meets Bo Cruz, an unknown phenom, who Sugerman believes could be his team’s ticket to a championship.

So why are we seeing this decline in audience favorite sports movies?

New world, new rules

Khanna attributes this shift, in part, to the rise of social media. He says sports movies were once used as a way to tell stories about athletes, giving the average viewer an entry point into their lives.

But now we live in « remarkable times for getting to know athletes », he said, where the public already has direct access to the lives of their favorite athletes.

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Podcast host Vish Khanna explains how professional athletes are using social media to speak out about topics they are passionate about, and says we live in « remarkable times » for people to connect with athletes.

Jonathan Filipovic, a professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., who has examined the role of sport in film and literature in some of his courses, agrees that we are in the midst of a period unprecedented time when it comes to connecting with athletes.

« We know everything about the origin of the athlete and what he had to overcome, » he said. « It really becomes a challenge to dramatize that. »

But, it’s not just social media that’s at play here, says Khanna. The advancement of technology has also changed the way we watch and interact with sports. Khanna says real sporting events are shown to us in a way that just didn’t exist in decades past.

« The way they show the games is so realistic, I feel like they’re actually borrowing from the movies. »

Khanna says it shows in the current NHL playoffs, where the use of techniques like multiple camera angles and the incorporation of drones makes us feel closer than ever to the sport and its athletes.

It can also be found in Hustle. Using close-up camera shots and humanizing real athletes through things like training footage is what makes the film work, he adds.

Vish Khanna says realistic training sequences, like this scene from Hustle, make audiences feel closer to the athletes in the movies. (Scott Yamano/Netflix)

But Filipovic says a saturation of content, albeit through social media, countless streaming services and even movies from other genres, has left sports movie themes and stories too familiar for the viewer to read. public cares as much as before.

He says tropes that were once specific to sports film have been appropriated by other genres.

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Some genre tropes are no longer unique to sports film

Communication professor Jonathan Filipovic says tropes that were once specific to a sports story are now used in all sorts of genres.

« If you wanted the underdog story, you used to go watch a sports movie, and now you can get it in a lot of different settings and in a much more popular package right now. »

He cites superhero movies – especially Marvel ones guardians of the galaxy and Captain Marvel— like filling that slot today.

The crossroads of sport and culture

These developments have led to a mixture of sport and culture in real life, says Filipovic. With greater access to these athletes, he said, « pop culture and sports have kind of crossed paths. »

This left us with storylines that we can follow in real time, rather than just watching fictional depictions in a movie, says Filipovic.

« For a long time, athletes were limited…they play sports, they make endorsements. And sometimes you could see someone appear in a movie, but that was really rare. »

Now athletes are appearing more and more in movies, says Filipovic, who points out Hustle and another recent Adam Sandler film, Uncut Gemswhich features former NBA star Kevin Garnett.

Hustle, too, features dozens of current and former NBA players. Some play themselves, while others appear as fictional characters.

Hustle features several NBA stars, including Hernangomez, left, and Anthony Edwards pictured here. (Scott Yamano/Netflix)

Khanna says the way these stories are told is likely to continue to change – and we’re already seeing that happen.

The Ted Lasso playbook?

When it comes to sports storytelling, Khanna says studios are likely looking at trends when deciding what to stream. He points to the success of the Apple TV+ streaming hit Ted Lasso.

The series follows the story of an American football coach, hired to coach an English football team despite knowing nothing about the sport. He uses his relentless optimism to try to make up for his lack of knowledge.

« It’s a great example of telling a story based on a sport, but it’s really about relationships, » Khanna said.

Schultz Nicholson also believes that streaming services will release more sports-related content in the future. She says there’s an opportunity for these services to engage with audiences that have been less active in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID has [led to] kids aren’t physical anymore and I think we need to bring them back to a physical state and sport is one way to do that. »

Considering all these factors, is there still a demand for sports reporting?

Khanna says yes, even though the formula we know might change, the demand for sports movies will still be there.

« You are related to them [athletes] thanks to their skills and perseverance,” he said.

« If movies can continue to find the human element…I think they’ll do well. »


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