TV's New Creative Obsession: The Wide World of Sports

Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Fox's 'Pitch'

Michael B. Jordan and Michael Strahan will each executive produce a sports-themed drama which will join the increasing slate of scripted sports TV including Fox's 'Pitch,' Starz's 'Survivor's Remorse,' and HBO's 'Ballers.'

Scripted television increasingly is looking to score with sports.

With Fox's Pitch, Starz's Survivor's Remorse, HBO's Ballers and Audience Network's Kingdom already on the air, the development bench includes LeBron James' NBC sports-medicine drama, NFL defensive end Calais Campbell's semi-autobiographical CBS family comedy, Simon Cowell, Ian Brennan and Diablo Cody's Fox synchronized-swimming comedy and Michael Strahan's ABC drama about a Heisman Trophy winner turned cop. Meanwhile, Michael B. Jordan's first project under his new Skydance production deal is the hoops drama Apollo Park. Why the sudden rush to athletics?

"Sports has an ability to attract, engage and retain fans of all demographics," 20th Century Fox TV president of creative affairs Jonnie Davis tells THR. "People are looking for unique stories and characters outside of normal office places."

Although sports-themed projects have experienced varying degrees of success (Friday Night Lights was punted from NBC to DirecTV because of low ratings, and ABC's Sports Night and short-lived 2013 sitcom Back in the Game flopped), insiders continue to find faith in sports' big live-viewership numbers.

"For broadcast, sports is still a main audience aggregator, and if you can figure out a way to branch into primetime, then great," says one TV literary agent. Notes a manager with multiple clients developing in the space, "We're trying to find every angle of sports that hasn't been shown yet."

While Pitch — produced in partnership with Major League Baseball — hasn't been a hit (its most recent episode drew a 0.8 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demo), the story of the first woman to play in the majors explores a broader theme of overcoming obstacles. Davis says archetypes found in sports underdogs, heroes and villains — are key to reaching even nonsports fans.

"We are a sports-obsessed nation," says Pitch showrunner Kevin Falls. "Every year studios, networks and writers are looking for ideas that aren't the typical cop, lawyer and doctor franchises. Why not lift the hood on sports?"

This story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.