To Win or Not to Win: Writing the Sports Movie


I have to be honest, I’m not a sports fan. But I love sports movies. That might sound illogical but when you consider that sports movies run the gambit of genres (sports/comedy, sports/romance, sports/bio-pic and sports/drama) there’s a lot to like. So, what are the common elements to a sports movie regardless of the genre its married to?

It’s about the Underdog

Your protagonist has to be the underdog. This is true even when you’re writing about athletes at the top of their game. The recent Battle of the Sexes is about Billie Jean King who, at the time, was the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world. How was she an underdog? Well, the film clearly shows that she, and the other women players, are being underpaid. And, also that she’s just beginning to recognize her attraction to other women. Even though she’s a proven winner, she’s still an underdog with a lot at stake.


Emma Stone and Steve Carell get ready for the big game in Battle of the Sexes. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

It’s about the Big Game

One of the things that make sports movies easy to write (and enjoyable) is that the outward goal is always clearly defined. The underdog wants to win the big game. Usually, you want to set-up the big game early in your script. Definitely no later than the midpoint. Rocky gets the chance to fight Apollo Creed. The high school football team has a shot at the state championship. The skater from an impoverished background gets a chance to go to the Olympics.

Once you’ve set up the big game, you know what your third act will be.

It’s about Winning

Yes, I see you waving your hand in the back. You’re right. Sports movies don’t always end with the hero winning the big game. But that doesn’t mean your story isn’t still about winning.  Your main character has to win something even if it’s not the big game. In Battle of the Sexes, which has a dual protagonist structure, Bobby Riggs loses the game but saves his marriage in the process. And so, he wins.

Another great example is Bring it On. The girls at the rich high school always win the championship. The girls at the poor high school deserve to win. Even though the girls from the rich high school lose, they learn important lessons about sportsmanship and become better people because of it. By losing they win.

Kirsten Dunst leads her team to second place in Bring It On. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

Even when the characters win, they should learn that winning isn’t everything. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a sports bio-pic about Rocky Graziano (and the inspiration for Rocky). At the end of that film, after a very up and down life, Rocky wins the big fight. He and his wife are in the backseat of a convertible during a ticker-tape parade. He tells her that someday he’s going to lose and that’s okay.

It’s about the Romance

Speaking of Rocky, one of its iconic moments is when Rocky screams out “Adrian!” after losing the big fight (but winning because he fights a great fight). He loses the fight but he wins the girl. Romance is a huge element in most sports elements.

Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone begin their iconic love story in Rocky. Photo courtesy United Artists.

Whether it drives the plot, as in Tin Cup or Bull Durham, or if it’s a subplot as in Rocky, romance is often a vital element to a sports movie. Trophies are nice but an audience doesn’t connect with them emotionally. An audience connects with the idea of winning love.

Even in a film like A League of Their Own, where the main character’s husband is off fighting World War II, romance is an important element for the other characters while the main character and the coach have a non-romantic relationship that hits some of the beats of a romance.

It’s about the Sports

It’s vitally important in a sports movie that you show the sports. The two main beats you’ll probably need to include (and there will likely be more) are the training sequence and the big game. The training sequence is almost always there and needs to show the underdog working harder than anyone else. It serves two purposes, first it shows that the main character could win and that they deserve to win. The big game in the third act, if you’ve built your story well, should be suspenseful.

It’s important to remember when you’re writing your script, that your sports sequences are going to play longer than the traditional one-minute a page rule. Let’s say you have five sports sequences of various lengths. If your total script is 120 pages you’re movie could actually be 135 or 140 minutes which is probably too long for this type of film. You want to take a little time and trim your script down before someone else does.

If you haven’t given writing a sports movies much thought, think about it. They can be really fun and appeal to a larger audience than it might seem.

So what are some of your favorite sports movies?


Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

6 Replies to "To Win or Not to Win: Writing the Sports Movie"

  • comment-avatar
    Joe Hurry March 5, 2018 (7:28 pm)

    In 1986 I went to WARNER BROS., STUDIOS (check gate pass) if you do not believe me. Gave them three scripts hoping to sell one. The first was a crime drama about a burglar who breaks into a criminal’s manson to help him file a false insurance claim, the next was, a dark comedy about a basketball player who sells his soul for fame and fortune and the last story was about the Vietnam war when it ends a soldier is shipped out to europe and learns that the military has a complete tackle football league in europe. It became the USFL. I could not sell it, but they never gave me back my scripts?! I LOVE SPORTS MOVIES!? I have a boxing script. The first black swimmer on a high school swim team and he becomes a wrestler at the all white high school. Sports stories always have a great ending. !?WHY!?

  • comment-avatar
    Nacio Baron March 6, 2018 (4:00 am)

    All time it has to be “Rocky” it’s a film I’ve watched over 100 times, and enjoyed every time be it the training montages, the love subplot, the characters, the settings, or even the phenomenal score by Bill Conti, what’s not to love about this film or franchise. It can definitely be said that a lot of the core of this film is used in its spinoff franchise “Creed”, but I have to say the latest sports film I really loved has to be Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior” it’s absolutely spectacular from top to bottom, and with that being said this sports genre will always be filled with classics, with there being a vast variety of sports out there it’s safe to say the stories to be told are almost never ending, I mean I’ve got a couple in my back pocket from personal experience I can’t wait to dive into…

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton March 7, 2018 (3:03 pm)

      Thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen Warrior but I’ll check it out sometime.

  • comment-avatar
    Paul March 9, 2018 (10:17 am)

    So many sports movies of so many types come to mind and so many types of sports and athletic competition as well. Two things that are important as well are characters and knowing the sport. Sports fans know all the stats and players so you don’t want to have them say that you got the details wrong. Intriguing and compelling characters make a great story in a genre that can be very cliché. One film that I liked a lot is the 2005 New Zealand film “The Worlds Greatest Indian” with Anthony Hopkins as real life Burt Munro who took his Indian motorcycle to the Utah Salt Flats and broke a land speed record still unmatched today. Writer/Director Roger Donaldson first made a documentary about him in 1971 but it took 30 years to make it a feature. It is the only sports movie I know where the lead actor/character is almost 70. There is no romance but the main character does befriend a drag queen along the way. Sentimental but aren’t all sports films.

  • comment-avatar
    Axel July 9, 2018 (4:10 am)

    Typically, sports moving are almost always about some kind of winning, but can you think of sports movies in which there is no winner, multiple winners or ties? I can only think of “Legend of Bagger Vance” and “Victory”.

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