From an audience perspective, sport is all about narrative. A game between two competitive teams can be exciting; a game between age-old rivals gets people on their feet. The ability of a fan, or a writer or a commentator, to slot the players into existing tropes and assemble a story makes the game worth remembering.
Read enough Sports Illustrated and, over time, you’ll find three recurring stories that drag out the hoariest cliches but still continue to inspire us. Today, I’m going to put my English degree to use and run down these Core Sports Stories. I’ll also point out some real and fictional examples of each Story so you can follow along at home.
The Underdog Makes Good
Tagline: Nobody believed in them – until they believed in themselves.
What It Is: A team that no one expects to amount to anything suddenly goes on a winning tear. Alternatively: a team that’s pretty good playing against a grievously favored opponent. They’re outmassed and outclassed in every way possible but they still go on to win.
Why It Works: We all feel like losers sometimes. We all have obstacles in our life that are bigger, tougher and more established than we are. It’s invigorating to know that those obstacles can still be knocked down.
Real-World Examples: The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey “Miracle on Ice”
Fictional Examples: Rocky, Rudy, David and Goliath
Sport As Redemption
Tagline: He’d lost it all … then he found hope.
What It Is: A loser, a crook or a villain is loudly and universally ostracized by the fans and press. He then goes on to win and all is forgiven.
Why It Works: If the last two thousand years of western civilization are any indicator, we’re all looking for redemption. I’m not sure that a 40-HR season is what the Scripture had in mind, but it’s much more entertaining.
Real-World Examples: David Beckham (several times), Ray Lewis, Kobe Bryant.
Fictional Examples: Hoosiers, Rocky III, The Longest Yard
The Birth of Something Beautiful
Tagline: He was the greatest they’d ever seen.
What It Is: A rookie comes out of nowhere and goes on to be the greatest.
Why It Works: Bragging rights. By telling this story, you get the right to say “I knew him back when.” You catch the train at the first station and you ride it all the way to its end.
Real-World Examples: LeBron James, Tom Brady.
Fictional Examples: The Natural
Honorable Mention: Money Ruins Everything (1919 Chicago White Sox); All Glory is Fleeting (Mohammed Ali).