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Why underdog sports films are still popular

The triumph of the underdog might be a cliché, but it seems to appeal to something eternal and positive in human nature. We like to root for good people to do well, against the odds, through perseverance, ingenuity and willpower. We also like to see not-so-good people get a second chance and learn some life lessons along the way.

It’s the essence of good drama, and a theme close to the hearts of many sports fans. Everyone may love a winner, but it’s always more exciting and heart-warming when a punchy scrapper comes out of nowhere to take the title away from the big shots who may just have got a little too complacent and arrogant.


Changing fortunes

As well as being about the triumph of human nature and offering hope to those who may feel that life has dealt them a shoddy hand, the underdog sports movie can also warn us about the dangers of hubris and feeling that we have an inalienable right to always keep winning. Man mustn’t try to walk with the gods, these films tell us: fate is a trickster, and fortunes can be drastically reversed so that the loser wins, and the champion loses his crown.

In The Mighty Ducks (1992), Emilio Estevez plays Gordon Bombay, an arrogant and unlikeable lawyer who, following a drunk driving conviction, is compelled to become the unwilling coach to a loveable but hopeless junior league hockey team. Bombay’s obsession with winning drives the team on but it’s not ultimately what secures them their victory. As Bombay learns about the value of friendship, self-sacrifice and believing in yourself, he is humbled but grows as a person.


Do it for the coach

Sports films often seem to focus on coaches who are either disgraced champions or outsiders whose unorthodox methods turn a team of losers into champions. Think of Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears (1976), Gene Hackman in Hoosiers (1986), John Candy in Cool Runnings (1993) and Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights (2004). Partly this is to allow established older actors a starring role. But it can also be about how either an older outsider can go against the establishment and so make a direct connection with the younger generation, such as in the classic Bull Durham (1988). Most commonly though it’s about redemption, and how someone who fell from grace due to their own shortcomings – often hubris again- can be given a second chance as a human being.


Based on a true story

Many of these sports films are based on a true story, if sometimes loosely. The sense that this really happened gives them an added emotional punch. Miracle (2004) told how player-turned-coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) led the 1980 Olympic men’s ice hockey team to victory over the seemingly unstoppable Russian side. This can attract more fans to the sport in question, and those checking out the hockey news website will find that ice hockey in real life contains just as much romance and drama as in the movies.


Against the odds

Most audience members can identify with an underdog more readily than with someone who has it all. Keanu Reeves as disgraced quarterback Shane Falco in The Replacements (2004) is an everyman figure: flawed but easy to identify with, even as he learns some painful life lessons and leads his ragtag band of misfits to victory in the final seconds of the game.

We sometimes feel like we’re battling against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and at the same time we’re all aware that we’ve made mistakes in our lives. We might all feel like we’re living on our wits and looking out for that one lucky break, like Sean Astin in Rudy (1993) pursuing his seemingly impossible dream to play football for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish.

Perhaps the ultimate everyman figure is the fan who gets to play alongside his heroes. This is exemplified by Mark Wahlberg in Invincible (2006) where he plays Philadelphia Eagles fan Vince Papale who wins a spot on the team and then has to work to prove himself.

Underdog sports films can also be used to address social issues such as racism or poverty. We can see how talented potential stars are often held back by accidents of birth, race or gender. Of course, for the films to work these obstacles are eventually overcome by the hero, though sometimes the film shows structural change as the real victory. In A League Of Their Own (1992) the real victory is the permanent establishment of a women’s baseball league, as well as the friendships forged along the way.

Sports and underdog stories both have a universal appeal. It’s natural that they should go together, and variations on this story will doubtless capture audience imaginations for a good while yet.

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