I’ve been grappling with the back-to-back announcements last fall that both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have signed deals to develop their own fictional TV shows. When LeBron got the ball rolling in September, it struck me as a little outside the box, but LBJ is on top of the world right now and he can do whatever it is he wants . The Wade announcement is the one that stood out to me. Is this just a Super Friends thing? Would there be a Chris Bosh tie-in show? If so, it would be a cartoon, right? Or is this the sign of something bigger?
I was pretty sure no one would let Chris Bosh develop a show , which means this must be the start of a trend. But why? Athletes have been trying to turn their fame and athletic notoriety into broader entertainment success for years. There are myriad reasons (fame, ego, the fact that we like seeing athletes away from the field, the fact that we love seeing athletes flame out off the field, etc.) that athletes dip their toe in the arts, and they do so with varying levels of success. I’m not particularly interested in how bad or good these attempts are; Robert DeNiro has made more bad movies than Shaq , and let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that these are generally anything more than cash-grabs.
The real question is why the sudden turn towards scripted TV shows? I don’t watch reality TV, but the internet informs me there are currently many athletes of mixed ability and celebrity involved to varying degrees in reality TV shows. But reality TV is cultural sugar cereal; it satisfies the need for a quick fix (of something, I’m not sure what) but provides little in the way of nutritional value. Scripted TV can be something different.
Athletes have played main or supporting roles in movies for a long time. Jim Brown ended his career to become a movie star. Stars of the 70’s and 80’s had supporting roles in numerous films: Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Airplane!, OJ Simpson in The Naked Gun series, Terry Bradshaw in Burt Reynolds movies.
In the 90’s, it got taken to another level. The supporting work was still there (Dan Marino in Ace Ventura, Bret Favre in There’s Something About Mary), but movies were now being built around sports stars. Michael Jordan in Space Jam, Shaq in Blue Chips and Kazaam, Ray Allen in He Got Game, and of course, Gheorghe Murezan in My Giant. However, since those halcyon days starring vehicles for athletes in the movie business have slowed to a trickle.
The same arc is true for the music industry. Terry Bradshaw made a country album. In the 80’s, entire football teams made albums. The 90’s and early 2000’s saw a slew of rap albums from the likes of Shaq, Kobe, Deion Sanders, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest, Chris Webber, and the list goes on. But that has slowed to a halt too. In 2013, would you be more surprised to hear that Carmelo Anthony has signed on to develop a TV show, or that he is releasing an album? I’m leaning towards the latter.
How to explain all this? I think it is yet another sign that TV is now the dominant form of entertainment in North America from the standpoint of cultural relevancy. Basketball players don’t dream of being hip hop stars anymore; they dream of being Anthony Weiner, David Simon or David Chase. Recording an album isn’t going to make any money in 2013; the only way to make money off music now is to tour, which athletes already do for their day job. Hollywood doesn’t make anything but sequels, prequels, and comic book movies anymore. Though there are plenty of opportunities for wooden acting and one-dimensional characters in these films, there is little room for the archetypal athlete cameo.
Of all the reasons athletes choose to enter the entertainment industry, I’m guessing that prestige and branding are among the highest. Right now, TV shows are as prestigious and culturally significant as you can get. What’s more, we value the creative vision of TV show runners as much or more than the actors we see on screen. This fits well with the schedule of an athlete, who likely doesn’t have time for the multi-month frenzy that comes with acting in a full season of a TV show. But being the creative force behind the show? That is something they can build their brand on.
What does it all mean? Probably not that much. But don’t be surprised if your favourite athletes start signing on as “executive producer” or “creative advisor” for scripted shows. As an Oilers fan, I’m waiting for the classic three camera sitcom starring an Ilya Bryzgalov-like character, along the lines of Perfect Strangers. Its a simple recipe: a straight man (let's say Devan Dubnyk) sharing an apartment in the big city (Edmonton?) with an Eastern European who has a minimal understanding of English and North American cultural norms (Brzygalov). Hilarity ensues. #6seasonsandamovie