Movies About Sports Don't Play Well at the Box Office. Time to Rethink the Genre?

The sports-underdog movies Americans like don't play as well overseas and there's competition for other types of media.

Aug 27, 2014 at 4:07PM

Empty Movie Theater

Alex Eflon, Flickr.

The photograph above -- empty movie theater seats -- is occurring with more frequency in the world of sports films. To say 2014 has been a bad year for the genre would be putting it lightly. Hollywood headliners Draft Day and Million Dollar Arm flopped financially, just months after last Christmas's Grudge Match debacle. All three films barely broke even domestically, and on average, made just $37 million at the global box office versus a mean budget of $30 million, according to data from Box Office Mojo.

That's a far cry from 2011, when Soul SurferMoneyball and Real Steel each grossed at least twice what they cost to make. Unless the recently released When the Game Stands Tall can exceed expectations and bring in five times its $15 million budget, this will be the worst 12-month period for sport-focused films since 2008.

So, is it still worth it for studios to back sport-focused films? To answer that question, one must ask a couple of others first.

What kind of sports movies do audiences prefer?
The numbers reveal that, generally, sports dramas perform better than sports comedies. Over the past decade, 41 different sport-focused films have grossed at least $10 million worldwide, Box Office Mojo shows. Within that group, 17 comedies averaged a box office take of $64 million and a production budget of $42 million. The remaining dramas, on the other hand, made more money and cost less, bringing in an average of $80 million on a budget of $37 million.

Whether it's star power, marketing, or something else altogether, there are several reasons why this could be happening. The best explanation, though, may be the simplest: Audiences like an underdog story. An entire body of research is devoted to what psychologists call the "underdog effect." A 2007 study from University of South Florida, for instance, found that test subjects observing a competition were more likely to support the side they believed to be at a disadvantage.

The real world examples of this strategy being put to use in cinema are endless; the five highest-grossing sports dramas of all-time -- The Blind Side, Seabiscuit and three Rocky films --  are classic underdog stories. Even those that aren't as formulaic, like 2006's We Are Marshall, still contain some underdog elements. 

By contrast, it's possible sports comedies are less successful because they haven't followed this blueprint as frequently. Aside from The Longest Yard, Here Comes the Boom and a few others, many in the sub-genre don't embrace the concept. Leatherheads, the 2008 dud from Comcast's Universal starring George Clooney, went for wit and romance instead; it made $41 million on a budget of $58 million. Playing for Keeps and Rebound, both of which also lost money, are two other examples. In fact, the only sports comedies to break the $100 million revenue barrier in the past 10 years -- Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Longest Yard and Blades of Glory -- all centered around disgraced athletes mounting a comeback.

Are certain studios better at sports flicks than others?
Not surprisingly, the studios that focus on sports dramas tend to do better financially. Disney (NYSE:DIS) is the most obvious case. The company and its subsidiaries produced or distributed more sports movies -- eight -- than any competitors since 2005. All eight movies were centered on underdog stories, and literally, covered every angle imaginable, from horse racing (Secretariat), to football (Invincible), to robot boxing (Real Steel). On average, the films returned nearly two times their production budgets.

Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros., Sony (NYSE:SNE), and Viacom (NASDAQ:VIAB) are the other clear winners. Combined, they had their hands in 20 sports movies over the past decade. In terms of return on investment, Warner Bros.'s The Blind Side, another drama, led the pack with a $309 million take on a mere $29 million budget. Viacom and its Paramount subsidiary, meanwhile, struck gold with 2010's The Fighter, while Sony's top sports returner was Soul Surfer. 

It's tough to declare any outright losers, but 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) and Lions Gate (NYSE:LGF) have been involved in less profitable projects than their peers. Fox oversaw the releases of comedic bombs Whip ItRebound, and The Comebacks. The company's only true success in recent years was The Wrestler in 2008, a $44 million-grossing drama starring Mickey Rourke that cost just $6 million to produce. Small sample size issues aside, Lions Gate's two sports films -- Draft Day and Warrior -- have taken in an average of just over $26 million on budgets of $25 million each.

The big question
Despite the sparkling historical averages, an underdog sports drama isn't necessarily guaranteed to make millions. If it were, 2014's flops would've performed much better at the box office. 
So, is it still worth it for studios to back sports movies? Industry officials shed light on the issue earlier this year, and one of the biggest problems is a lack of international appeal.

"It's more difficult to make any movie now, but sports movies are as difficult as they come because they are hard to travel with," Imagine Entertainment President Erica Huggins told The Wrap in an April articleDraft Day, for example, made just 2% of its  lifetime gross abroad. Million Dollar Arm brought in even less money from outside the U.S. -- a mere $439,000.

In a world where U.S. sports preferences are markedly different than those overseas, this makes sense. While the NFL is the most popular domestic sport, it's not even in Europe's top three. Baseball faces just as large of a popularity gap. Non-Americans simply aren't going to see Hollywood's attempts to dramatize American sports as often, especially when foreign films can focus on story lines that hit closer to home.

But there may be something else to blame: competition from other types of media. Mandalay Pictures' David Zelon shared his thoughts on the subject with The Wrap in the same April article: "Sports movies, especially comedies, used to be the one of the best forms of fun for males under 25...Now you're competing with Madden Football and Facebook...There are so many other things pulling away their interest that are cheaper and easier now."

What's next?
The future is unclear. It might be time for a new plot formula, or the problem could run much deeper than that. Viewers today have more alternatives to sports movies than they once did. While the genre certainly isn't dead, studios will likely be selective when choosing projects going forward. 

And the data show they are heading in that direction. Just three medium to big-budget sports movies were launched in 2013, compared with 11 in 2006, and seven a year before that. 

What should investors do?
From an investing standpoint, it's important not to overreact. High-profile sports flops make headlines, but they rarely have a material impact on a major studio's bottom line. For companies like Disney, Time Warner, Sony, and their peers, ticket sales from sports films make up only a tiny portion of their revenue and the money spent on the films is relatively small, too. Disney, for example, will have its stamp on 17 movies this year according to Box Office Mojo, and only one is sports-related.

Of Disney's $1.17 billion in box office revenue made so far in 2014, just 3% comes from the genre. In terms of production costs, the portion of money spent on sports films is even lower, near 2%. Time Warner's subsidiaries maintain similarly small ratios, along with Sony and Viacom. 

The sports movie's decline also gives studios the opportunity to focus on underdeveloped genres, like westerns, musicals, and dark comedies. As I detailed earlier this year, these topics typically produce similar box office results as dramas, yet are made much less often. Perhaps it's time to change that.

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Jake Mann has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Lions Gate Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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