This last week I found myself watching the World Series. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a single game of any World Series before. Based on what I’ve heard about the viewership ratings, I wasn’t the only one. With the two teams with the longest World Series Championship droughts battling it out it was just too good a story to miss!
Sports stories have become a genre unto themselves, and usually they’re about as cliché as they come. And yet we love them. I could probably name at least a dozen sports movies off the top of my head that I’ve watched through the years. Most of the time they have a lot of elements in common. Here’s a look at a few:
Underdogs – There’s usually a player or a team–or both–who is struggling against the odds. No one believes in them. They may not even believe in themselves. They’re stuck in obscurity or the bottom of the rankings, until…
The Catalyst – The player gets discovered. A new coach is brought in. No one believes in the catalyst at first, either. But they come in and shake things up. They believe in the team before the team can begin to believe in itself.
The Opposition – There’s another team out there, and there may be a specific player on that team, who are not just another team, they’re the nastiest of the nasty teams. They don’t just beat our underdog team, they humiliate them and rub their noses in it. Sometimes the opposition will include a player or someone in the head office of the underdog team, as well, who stands to benefit from their continuing to lose.
The Turning-Point – There come a point when the Catalyst starts to get results and the rest of the team grudgingly starts to follow along. They start to believe in themselves, and low-and-behold, they start to win games!
The Inevitable Re-Match – As the underdogs begin to win it sets things in motion toward the final showdown with the Opposition.
The Hitch – Something always goes wrong. The Underdogs get cocky. The Opposition conspires and cheats and sabotages. The Player loses his advantage. The Underdogs are forced to fall behind.
Redemption – The Underdogs pull off a miracle and send the Opposition down to a devastating defeat. The franchise is saved! The Player finally is completely accepted by the team. The Hitch is resolved, and everyone lives happily ever after. Or they lose, but discover something more important in the end.
There are movies that break this mold, of course, and they often do quite well. “Field of Dreams” is often considered a sports movie, and yet it follows almost none of this. “The Natural” follows this formula fairly well, and yet builds in some interesting differences. But it’s hard to mess with this formula entirely. “Field of Dreams” features a protagonist who sets out to do something extraordinary, however crazy. No one believes in him. Things get tight. He starts to question his own sanity, and he nearly gives up. And then there is Redemption–on several levels.
It’s hard to escape this pattern entirely–and we’re willing to endure it repeatedly–because it follows the nature of sports. We have teams in competition. We don’t want to follow the team that is already winning because there’s no drama in that. We want to cheer for a team that actually has to work at it! So of course they have to be underdogs.
But if they remain underdogs it won’t be any fun, either, so of course something has to change to give them a shot at finally overcoming the obstacles that keep them down. And of course it’s also no fun once they start doing well if they just keep on doing well and steamroll over everyone, so of course there has to be that one team they could never beat, and one last chance to do so for all the marbles. And of course there has to be a hitch.
But in the end we need redemption of some sort or there’s no point in telling the story in the first place. Unless it’s the Cubs. They’ve been the “lovable losers” for so long it’s almost a disappointment to see them finally win it. But let’s face it, the Cubs’ “curse” and 108-year drought wasn’t just a great baseball story. It’s been the baseball story of all time. That’s why record numbers tuned in to watch–we all wanted to see if we’d get our storybook ending.
Sports has all the prerequisites for a story; good guys, bad guys, competition, fighting against the odds, heroic champions, winners, losers, suspense, drama, overcoming the odds, last-second victories, and the thrill of triumphing over near-evil. It’s why I don’t like to sit down and turn on a game. I’ll glom onto the story and before I know it I’ve watched an entire game instead of what I should have been doing.
Sports stories make for good stories. And that’s one reason why no matter how clichéd they may be, the old formula still works. People know what to expect, and they never tire of having those expectations met. That doesn’t mean we as writers can’t play with the formula a little, but we’d better not stray too far.
Everybody loves a winner–or a lovable loser.