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'Playing for Keeps': Why does football keep sacking soccer at the box office?

December 10, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik

The last 15 years have been, in some respects, the glory days of sports movies. I don't mean this in a qualitative sense -- "Remember The Titans" isn't exactly "The Natural" -- but it's certainly a time when sports movies have prospered.

There have been a number of outsized hits: 2000's Titans" made more than all but five sports dramas in history while, with $256 million, 2009's "The Blind Side" is the most successful sports movie ever released. Even disposable comedies like "The Longest Yard" raked it in; the remake tallied $158 million when it hit in 2005.

 You may notice that all of these movies are set in the world of football. Movies taking place in the other kind of football, the one played with feet, has not had nearly as good a time of it.

 A few years ago, when the 2010 World Cup rolled around, my colleague John Horn documented how there are precious few movies, let alone good ones, about soccer.

The secondary (and maybe not unrelated) point is that those that exist don't do very well. The niche British efforts--intimate dramas like Tom Hooper's "The Damned United" and Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric" -- barely make a dent on this side of the ocean. ("Bend It Like Beckham" is a notable exception, though at just over $30 million in U.S. receipts, it’s still a modest hit.)

Meanwhile, mainstream Hollywood soccer films, such as Will Ferrell 'scomedy "Kicking and Screaming" ($53 million) and this weekend's "Playing for Keeps" don't fare any better. When a genre's second-most successful movie ever is "She's the Man," you know it's in trouble.

 "Playing for Keeps," which stars Gerard Butler as an aging star who goes to a small Virginia town to coach his son’s youth soccer team, had a particularly rough time of it: It grossed just $6 million, not even enough to put it in the Top 5 amid a bunch of leftovers.  Other factors--such as Butler's dimming star--may have had something to do with that, but setting the film in the world of soccer certainly didn't do it any favors.

 The failure of soccer movies is surprising because, while soccer's television ratings aren't within a hundred yards of football, the sport itself is hugely popular. More than 18 million Americans play soccer, with about 14 million of them in the coveted -under-18 demo. That should at least yield some respectable hits.

But soccer isn't a sport we want to watch on the big screen. Some of that is habitual, but some of it, I suspect, is fundamental. There's something inherently pleasing about the quantitative gains of football--passes are either complete or incomplete, first downs are clearly measured and touchdowns are plentiful.  The more leisurely vibe of soccer, with much of the skill coming in harder-to-discern realms like ball control (and in a part of the field that’s nowhere near a goal) doesn’t offer the same level of cinematic satisfaction.

(Basketball movies, which also tend to do well, are similar to football in this regard. Baseball movies have historically been a popular genre, but for the most part their heyday was decades ago.)

When the Farrelly brothers adapted Nick Hornby's memoir "Fever Pitch" about seven years ago, they changed the setting from the Arsenal-centric soccer of their source material to the baseball and Boston Red Sox they knew far better. "Playing for Keeps" went the other way: It was originally a baseball movie that producers changed in part so that the film might hold greater international appeal. Given how little we want to see soccer movies, "Playing for Keeps" will need all the overseas help it can get.


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