March 5, 2024

In more ways than you realize, sports and movies are the exact same thing. On the simplest level, each consists of a group of highly trained, sometimes well-paid, professionals doing various specific jobs all with a singular purpose: telling a story, usually for profit. The main difference is that in movies (and TV) the story is generally planned out while in sports, it’s not. In both cases though, each exists to let people experience collective emotions.

For that reason, I’ll never understand anyone who loves film and television but shudders at the idea of a sporting event. Obviously, there are lots of people who love them both. Maybe even most. But in the age of social media, oftentimes the most vocal people are the ones yelling about everyone else watching a big game or swearing they’ll never care about “sports ball” and I simply don’t get it. Why don’t people who love The Neverending Story enjoy an actual neverending story?

Well, one reason might be that sports is, to put it in nerdy terms, more of a shared universe than the majority of movies. Most movies or shows can be enjoyed without preparation or context. Everything is there for you—no assembly required. Sports, however, are very rarely like that. Click over to a baseball or basketball game on a Tuesday night without a love for the sport or understanding of the teams, players, stakes, etc., and it’s hard to get full, complete enjoyment.

To fully embrace the beauty of sports, you have to treat them like you would a long novel or a multi-season, serialized piece of storytelling. You wouldn’t just jump into the middle of a season of Lost without seeing the episodes before it. No one flips to the center of a book and starts there. And Avengers: Endgame is pretty confusing if you don’t know what happened in all the movies leading up to it. Everything depends on context. Who is playing? What is at stake? What did it take to get there? What decisions were made in the offseason that are paying off now? What has happened during the season that changed this particular game? Sports are just like a long movie. One that’s best when you embrace the full story.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes vs. the Ravens last month.
Photo: Patrick Smith (Getty Images)

For some examples, let’s turn to this week’s big game, Super Bowl LVIII. That’s the first thing right there. This is the 58th one of these. We’re about to see the season finale of NFL season 58 (“Super Bowl” hasn’t always been the name of the NFL’s final game, so it’s actually been around longer, but you get the point). On the one side, you’ve got the Kansas City Chiefs and, even if you don’t follow sports, you’ve heard parts of their story this year. When their eventual Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce started dating global superstar Taylor Swift, the Chiefs went from the biggest name in football to the biggest name in the world. What often gets lost in all the Swift talk, though, is that the Chiefs won the Super Bowl last year. And three years before that too. They are the reigning, defending champions. Taylor Swift didn’t do that. The Chiefs were already very good. Thanks in large part to Kelce, yes, but also to their quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

In just his seventh season, the 28-year-old Mahomes has already cemented himself as one of the best players in the league’s history. In fact, he’s become so good, so fast, if you aren’t from Kansas City, he’s already gone from “guy you love to cheer for” to “guy you love to cheer against because he never stops winning.” How good is Mahomes? A few years ago he signed a contract worth over $500 million.

On the opposite side are the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners are a team with a rich history, highlighted by names you probably know like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. However, while being consistently decent for basically forever, they haven’t won a championship in 30 years. They got close recently though. At the end of the 2019 season, they got to the Super Bowl only to be beaten by, you guessed it, the Chiefs. So there’s bad blood right there.

49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.

49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.
Photo: Ezra Shaw (Getty Images)

Oh, and remember how Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes makes $500 million? Well the 49ers quarterback, Brock Purdy makes… significantly less. About $496 million less to be more specific. Purdy’s story is a legitimate fairy-tale, underdog-hero saga unfolding before our eyes and, if he wins the game on Sunday, there will be a movie made about him at some point. I guarantee it.

To explain that, again, you need a little context, and Purdy’s starts with the NFL draft. (I never said appreciating sports was easy by the way. In fact, often times it’s complicated. But I digress.) The draft is a huge part of any major narrative in American sports. It’s when young players, usually from college, are selected by teams in the professional league. Of course, the best players—or more specifically, the players teams believe will be the best—go first. So, in theory, the lower you get in the draft, the worse the players are. This, however, is not a tried and true system. High draft picks can very often be busts and, every once in a while, a low draft pick ends up being better than anyone expected. Like some guy named Tom Brady who was drafted 199th overall, after six other quarterbacks.

Which brings us back to Purdy. In 2022, the 49ers quarterback was drafted 262nd in the NFL Draft out of… 262. He was the last person drafted. A position so infamous, it’s come to be known as “Mr. Irrelevant.” The last person drafted usually never even plays, let alone starts, let alone leads his team to the freaking Super Bowl. So now, if Mr. Irrelevant beats the $500 million defending champion, that’s epic. It’s David beating Goliath, Rocky beating Apollo, the Rebels beating the Empire. The Hollywood script writes itself, and it’s even got a built-in title. (I was thinking “Mr. Irrelevant” but “Purdy Good” works too.)

RIP Carl Weathers. Thank you for all the great sports movie memories.

RIP Carl Weathers. Thank you for all the great sports movie memories.
Image: MGM

How can you love storytelling and not find those stories captivating? How can you not be curious about how those stories come to a close? Plus—and this is the best part—whether Mahomes wins his third championship or Purdy does the impossible, the drama starts all over again in a few months. A new draft class, a new training camp, season 59 begins. And stories like this exist on every team, in every game, in every sport. These are just a few for this one single game, of this one single sport, this one single year.

Now imagine investing in a team of your choosing, be it the hometown underdogs or the mega-franchise champions. Who’s playing this week? Who’s not? How do their opponents stack up? Did anyone get injured? Can we actually win the championship? It’s all just good old-fashioned storytelling, being played out every single week. But, instead of reading lines, the stars play between them.

And so, as the season finale of football unfolds on Sunday, think about sports not just as athletes banging into each other to move a ball. Imagine it’s the long action set piece that forwards the story. How a victory, like a great movie, can make you feel pure bliss. How a loss, like a bad movie, can ruin your day. Sports, like movies and TV, are all about emotional investment in a story you can’t control. And whether that story follows a team, a player, a superhero, or a masked serial killer, it’s all the same. You just have to buy in.

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