Sports-themed shows may not be as prevalent on television and in a way that makes sense. After all, real sports already boast an amazing mix of action, drama, some comedy and often quite wild situations and characters without having to fictionalize it. But as with all aspects of life, there is a lot of potential there for a TV show and several times, we’ve seen it happen. True, many are short-lived (the minor league baseball show “Bay City Blues” with Dennis Franz) but others have lasted longer than expected to provide some good entertainment. Even some that only lasted a single season are able to capture the feel of their particular sports amazingly well and often feel like you’re watching ripped-from-the-headlines moments rather than scripted drama.
In many cases, the sports are almost secondary. “The League,” FX’s wild comedy, focuses on fantasy football with the main joke that the characters argue sports all the time but are terrible athletes. Likewise, the hit sitcom The Game, focuses more on the lives of the women involved with ball players than the actual games. But there are lots of cases of shows that put the sports front and center, balancing the drama or humor with the real athletics and can provide some good entertainment in their own right. Some are famous, others less so but all of these shows have done a very good job showcasing why sports are a key aspect of life and whether giving us laughs or drama, do their best to entertain. You may have to wade through some bad stuff but if you’re a sports fan in any way, these 15 shows are a great way to tide you over for new seasons/games and remind you why sports matter so much no matter your age.
It’s only a few episodes old but already this HBO series is doing a fine job showcasing the realities of today’s sports stars. Dwayne Johnson is well-cast as a former big-time football player now forced by injury to make a go of it as a financial consultant. The pilot focused on a player killed in a car wreck while fighting with his girlfriend and the lack of support he left for his family. We get the flash of the world of athletes but Johnson is good talking about how some guys need to be smarter with their money (“If it drives, flies or rides, lease it”) and a player’s struggle to get a new contract. It’s early yet but it has a lot of promise and may even serve as a good cautionary tale for aspiring athletes that there’s always an end to the road and have to prepare for it.
14 Footballer’s Wives
It’s easy for folks in the U.S. to overlook how incredibly popular what we call soccer is in the U.K. Thus, it’s no wonder this nighttime soap was among their bigger hits. As the title suggests, it focuses more on the wives of players, particularly the deliciously wicked Tanya Turner (Zoe Lucker). We had some truly insane soap-opera antics (a woman trying to dye her baby’s skin so she can pass it off as the child of a foreign player) but the show also addressed the issues of players in the U.K. where some legal stuff is different. But it still showcased the harshness of the sport, guys having to deal with injuries, backbiting among the teammates as they jockey for the star position and the politics being played between players and owners and coaches. The soap style is key but it’s still fun to see how some themes of sports are the same no matter what country you’re from.
The first episode of this CW drama openly addresses the idea of cheerleading not being a real sport as Ashley Tisdale snaps at newbie cheerleader Aly Michalka over how cheerleaders train 20 hours a week, bench-press twice their weight, perform with broken thumbs and twisted ankles and all with a smile. While it could indulge itself a lot in a mix of comedy as well as some unneeded drama (the subplot of trying to free a wrongfully convicted man connected to a school cover-up), the series had a great sense of fun that made it infectious to watch. The cast was good handling the issues of cheerleaders as more than just eye candy and their own inner politics and issues (one getting hooked on painkillers and getting a talking to from the coach who’s a former addict herself) amid the T&A fun. It only lasted one season but its cult following shows that it’s far deeper than it seems and showcases how the cheerleaders are often better athletes than the folks on the field.
12 Make it or Break It
This ABC Family series focused on a quartet of young female gymnasts preparing for the Olympics. It addressed the pain they go through as they embark on these careers and the wear and tear of bodies (one girl getting involved with a group that promotes eating disorders as a great thing for their sport) and each of the actresses was good with the athletic moments. We got the issues of ego and clashes of teammates with teen drama as well as sponsorship (one girl with rich parents clashing with the gal from a trailer park) as well as the realities of the public life. It got bigger as it went on with a subplot of one gymnast wrestling with abuse by a coach and its ending was shorter than expected by a sudden cancellation. But it still nicely shows that while beautiful at their craft, these girls go through training and conditions that can bring grown male athletes to their knees and its title often quite literal.
11 Necessary Roughness
This USA series gets props for the wide range of sports it covered. Callie Thorne played a therapist left nearly bankrupt by a messy divorce with her cheating husband when a one-night stand with an assistant coach gets her a job trying to rein in a troublesome football star. Soon, she’s the go-to shrink for other athletes and the series was good as she tries to help them through their problems. From a NASCAR racer recovering from a crash to a female roller derby player wrestling with childhood issues, it was a good showcase for the psychology aspects of athletics. We got long-reaching plotlines of that star player changing his lifestyle after an accident and Thorne discovering the new team owner is perfectly okay with drug-dealing to “help” his players. While it wasn’t a huge hit, still quite interesting to see the mental makeup athletes need and Thorne a fine lead helping them through it all.
This popular ABC comedy had Craig T. Nelson in his most famous role as Hayden Fox, coach of a fictional Minnesota college football team, handling its aspects with the aid of his assistant coach (Jerry Van Dyke) and his well-meaning but thick-headed former player (Bill Fagerbakke) as well as raising his college daughter. While we didn’t see much actual football playing, we did get a sense of how it was for a college coach of the time, handling the issues of alumni, tempted by whether to let a failing player slide because of a big game coming up and having to bench a star over his attitude. The cast was good bouncing off each other with the comedy and while not as popular, the last two seasons put a unique spin by having Hayden promoted to coaching a pro expansion team and adjusting to the big leagues. Through it all, Nelson captivated you as a man who loved to win but not over his principles and won you over well. The upcoming NBC revival will be interesting to see this old-school coach in today’s collegiate world and should still be a winner.
This long-running HBO series seems to divide people into only “Love it or hate it” camps. Robert Wuhl played the title role of a sports agent doing everything he can for his clients with Sandra Oh, Jim Turner and Michael Boatman as his aides. The show could be wild and crass with plenty of cursing and indulging itself way too often in comedy situations and crazy moments (after being fired for looking too old, a female sportscaster bares her breasts on live camera) and thus seemed hard to take. But every now and then it could address serious stuff as when Arliss finds out a veteran ballplayer he idolizes is a wife-beater or a female golfer who only seems able to play well when drinking. While it did it with humor, the series did shine a light on the racism of some sports as well as drug use, athletes spending far beyond their means and more. It may be hard to love but every now and then, this series could surprise by showing the crass side of modern athletics (with many stars sending themselves up at times) and how much of a business it all is.
8 The League
As noted in the intro, the key bit of FX’s wild comedy is that its main characters have pretty much no athletic skill whatsoever. But at the same time, you have to enjoy its raunchy comedy as it totally nails the fantasy football world. We see the deals made, the fights between members, each competing for their season-ending prize (“The Shiva”) and howling with rage when one of their picks doesn’t perform as expected. Even better is every now and then we’ll see real NFL players pop up, often chastising these guys for running them down but other times having fun with their personas (the best being Kristin Cavallari, after her kid is tackled by another, saying “no one sacks a Cutler” and being told “have you seen your offensive line? EVERYONE sacks a Cutler.”) The characters may be among the worst group of people you can imagine but still damn funny to see them bouncing off each other and capturing how ultra-serious the fantasy playing world takes itself.
7 Eastbound and Down
Hysterical in every way imaginable, Danny McBride stars as Kenny Powers, a former big-league pitcher who won a World Series only to fall into incredible jerk behavior that got him kicked out of baseball. Now in his hometown, he dreams of winning over his former sweetheart even as he plans his comeback. McBride is nothing short of brilliant as a man who honestly has no idea how much of an egotistical, arrogant, selfish blowhard he comes off as. Like a Norma Desmond of baseball, he’s convinced he’s still the idol of millions and MLB teams are falling over themselves wanting him when the truth is far from it. He doesn’t seem to care of how many people he hurts, always putting himself first yet you can’t help but root for him with his wild antics and want him to succeed. From his rise and fall and rise again to even handling fatherhood, you can’t help but love the journey of this “American hero” and its funny take on baseball life.
6 Hang Time
Some may do a double-take at this but hear me out. Running six seasons, this NBC Saturday morning comedy focused on an Indiana basketball team thrown when a girl becomes their new star player. While most of the episodes involve jokes as juvenile as you expect, the series could deliver some nice messages of empowerment as well as some surprisingly mature themes. In one episode, the gang decide to play against a team with an HIV-positive player but one main character refuses to risk themselves. They also touch on playing through pain, steroid use, jumping to the pros and other things real high school players have to deal with while even daring to have the main team lose in the playoffs and deal with such disappointment. Plus, it was fun to see real NBA stars show up for cameos (look for a rookie Kobe Bryant in a Los Angeles-set episode) as well as football legend Dick Butkus as their later coach. Maybe not as serious as others on this list but the cast made it fun as well as some surprisingly believable basketball sequences.
5 The White Shadow
This classic series was a groundbreaker when it premiered in 1978 thanks to its mostly black and Latino cast. Ken Howard played a former Chicago Bulls star who, after his career is ended by injury, finds a job working at an inner Los Angeles high school to try and whip their basketball team into shape. The series was great with Howard trying to help these kids rise from their hard lives, using basketball as an outlet and a way to grow. It tackled issues new at the time from steroids to a kid deciding whether or not to go pro, the team nervous about a player who might be gay and even an episode of Howard striking an attacking teen player. It still holds up wonderfully to show how a series tackles sports alongside teen issues and paving the way for so many other minority-themed series to follow.
Reportedly, this ESPN series ran only one season because the NFL put massive pressure on the network to end it, not happy about its treatment of pro football. The irony is that so much of the series about a fictional pro team called the Cougars is stuff that plays out on ESPN stories all the time: constant drug use, playing through injury, guys dealing with brain issues, parties with hookers and owners and coaches who seem to care less about the well-being of these guys, only winning. But the show backed up the sensationalism with good stuff on the characters, discussing their pasts and what shaped them as well as how it wasn’t just money that drove them to take this abuse week after week. Hard to watch but impossible to look away from, this series plays even more today as a glimpse of reality of how the pro football world is.
3 Lights Out
Running just one season, this fantastic FX drama shone an overdue light on the brutal truths of the boxing world. Holt McCallany was fantastic in the lead as Patrick “Lights” Leary, a retired boxer who still feels the pull of the ring but trying to provide for his wife and three daughters. But then he’s hit by two major blows. First, he finds his brother has squandered most of his life’s savings in a botched business deal and leaving Patrick close to bankruptcy. Second, a doctor’s visit reveals all those blows to the head have given him constant headaches and memory loss and could get worse (Rocky V anyone?).
In order to provide for his family, Lights has to risk himself for a big rematch against a former opponent as his wife worries for him. This is no glamorous “Rocky” type journey, the show doesn’t hold back with things like a shattered wreck of a fighter, a ruthless promoter and even how boxing has fallen due to just this sort of thing. (A reporter to Patrick: “You think boxing has gotten bad? Try writing for boxing. For a newspaper.”) Its ending is bittersweet considering it was never renewed but it’s well worth tracking down for a powerful look at the long-term damage boxing can take and how brutal that sport is.
2 Sports Night
A great extra on the 10th Anniversary Series DVD has real “Sportscenter” guys discussing just how well this 1998-2000 ABC series nailed it. The frantic pace of a production center, trying to keep on top of things, nailing down sources and adjusting to big events, the series got it all perfectly. It wrung its comedy from realistic things such as when Sports Night clears time for a big boxing match…only to see it end in 10 seconds and now they have two hours of air time to fill. But it could wring some drama from things like Sabrina Lloyd’s character harassed by male ballplayers and having to take it. Or Robert Guillaume’s character, having long boasted of being at the stadium for Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” having to admit he was in the bathroom when it happened. The cast was top notch with Peter Krause, Josh Charles and Felicity Huffman all breaking out wonderfully and Aaron Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue showcasing the power of sports as well as how it could be pretty damn insane yet still so watchable.
1 Friday Night Lights
It’s hands-down the most realistic depiction of high school life of any television series. No adults in teenage bodies making witty pop culture references, these kids screw up, get into messes, over their heads and think they’re smarter than they are. In other words, they’re real teenagers. But the show shines by showcasing how football is a metaphor for life, set in a Texas town where the sport is considered religion. Football players are treated like royalty no matter what and their reputations live or die by each game. This is a town where the school council finds it totally logical to spend millions on a Jumbotron scoreboard rather than provide new textbooks for students. Where a division of schools creates a civil war in the town. Where a female manager talks of wanting to be a coach and is literally laughed at by the male coaching staff.
The cast was amazing, highlighted by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton giving us one of the best marriages on television and while there could be some slumps (the stalker murder plot of season two), it shone with a filming style that made you feel right there. It’s hard to capture in words but there is no denying the power of “FNL” as its five-season run remains one of the best prime-time network shows of the last decade and a sports series to honor. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”