Editorial: What Happened to Sports Movies for Kids?

     April 24, 2012


The baseball season has begun, the NHL is in the middle of the race for the Stanley Cup, and the NBA is about to begin its endless playoff season.  But at the multiplex, it’s always the off-season for kids’ sports films.  When I was growing up, there was a boon of sports movies for kids.  From 1991 to 1995, studios released a steady stream of movies featuring kids playing sports.  Films released in these four years included (in chronological order): The Mighty Ducks (1992), The Sandlot (1993), Rookie of the Year (1993), D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994), Little Big League (1994), Angels in the Outfield (1994), Little Giants (1994), and The Big Green (1995). There were other sports movies that kids could go see (like A League of Their Own), but these movies in particular featured kids playing sports and/or being die-hard fans of the sport.  These movies don’t get made any more, but it’s not like kids stopped playing sports.  So why have these movies died off, and is there any hope of seeing them again?

little-big-league-movie-posterBefore I get to the reasons about why the kids-sports genre has vanished, I feel it’s important to note that I don’t think any of the aforementioned movies are classics (except for A League of Their Own).  They all have flaws, and looking back at a couple of these movies with fresh eyes, it’s easy to see that some of the child actors gave weak performances, the writing could be silly, the dialogue was sometimes cringe-worthy, and the stories sugarcoated of sports history and professional sports.  For example, when a couple of the main boys in The Sandlot meet their African-American neighbor (James Earl Jones) and learned that he played professional baseball in the 1930s, there’s no mention that he played in the Negro League because baseball was segregated until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.  In Little Big League, the Minnesota Twins have fostered a locker room environment where no one swears.  But these movies and the other kids sports’ films of this era aren’t meant to be a history lesson or an unflinching look at life off the field.

The 1991-1995 kids sports movies embrace a child’s love sports as they understand sports, which is from the perspective of little league and televised games.  Based on the movies from 1991 to 1995, kids absolutely adored sports, particularly baseball.  In The Sandlot, the kids play the game with no innings, no score, and no set positions.  They simply play for the love of the game and because their hero is Babe Ruth (keep in mind that the film takes place in 1962).  In Rookie of the Year, a kid gets to live the dream of playing Major League Baseball while he’s still a kid.  Little Big League goes beyond taking the field since the dream of protagonist Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards) isn’t to play on a baseball team; his dream is to manage a baseball team because the sport has engrossed him so thoroughly that he knows its history and how to call plays.  And in Angels in the Outfield, literal angels make it their duty to help the California Angels win the pennant so that young Roger Bomman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can be reunited with his father.*

angels-in-the-outfield-danny-gloverAll of these movies and other sports films for kids carry similar structures and values.  The films involved team sports rather than individual sports like golf or singles-tennis because teams can take characters with vastly different personalities and bring them together to work towards a common goal.  When an adult is thrown into the mix, like Danny Glover in Angels in the Outfield and Emilio Estevez in The Might Ducks, victory and a pure love of the game can turn the most cynical person into a believer.  But victory isn’t really the goal.  The major lesson of most kids’ sports movie is to just have fun.  These movies say that as long as you get out there and work hard to make it to the championship, you’ll have fun and make some friends along the way.  That may not always jibe with reality, but it’s a positive message, and one worth delivering in a children’s movie.

The values of friendship, teamwork, and the fun of recreational sports haven’t diminished since 1995.  Additionally, kids still play sports, although the sports they play have changed.  Baseball has drastically declined in popularity among today’s youth, which is disappointing but understandable.  It’s a slow-paced game, and the romanticism for it, sadly, hasn’t carried through the generations.  But kids haven’t abandoned all sports.  They’ve simply changed the sports they play.  According to The Wall Street Journal, “Studies suggest more people now play soccer in the U.S. than baseball, and lacrosse participation among kids has more than doubled in the last decade. The number of high school lacrosse programs has been growing by about 7% a year.”

rookie-of-the-year-movie-posterSo why aren’t there kids’ movies about soccer or lacrosse?  Baseball is America’s Pastime, but it isn’t America’s Presentime.  Football is the most popular televised sport today, and kids across the country play in Pee-Wee Leagues.  I’m pretty sure you can’t put a kid into a Rookie of the Year-type situation (although it would be darkly comic), but there has to be some way to tie the two together**. But I believe there are larger factors than simply finding a good plot, and this goes not just for a football-based kids movie, but for all sports.

To begin, none of the kids movies I mentioned ever set the box office on fire.  If they were hits, they were modest hits, but their benefit was that they hardly cost anything to make.  The kids weren’t stars, and the adult actors weren’t A-listers.  In today’s marketplace, studios don’t want to hit singles and doubles***.  They want to hit home runs, and they definitely want to hit them in the summer movie season.   It’s important to note that Little Big League, Rookie of the Year, and Angels in the Outfield all came out in the heart of the summer, but that was back when the movie business wasn’t completely reliant on opening weekends.  In the 90s, movies could still have time to grow legs and stick around the multiplex for a little while.  Those days are gone, and now a kids’ sports movie with no stars couldn’t even begin to compete with superheroes and 3D animated movies.

Furthermore, movies are made for a global audience, and sports are regional.  Baseball may be popular in first-world countries like the U.S., Canada (i.e. Toronto since they have a team), and Japan (it’s huge in the Dominican Republic, but the DR isn’t really a major source of revenue), but the rest of the world doesn’t have much interest in the game beyond the Olympics.  The rest of the world cares about soccer, but the U.S. doesn’t (unless it’s during the World Cup, which is phony fandom on our part).  There are certainly soccer fans in the United States, and plenty of kids play soccer, but it’s not really America’s sport, which should be obvious since we call it “soccer” and the rest of the world calls it “football.”  And for American Football, no one else in the world cares because it’s not played anywhere other than the U.S.

the-mighty-ducks-movie-imageFinally, there’s the problem of merchandising.  Look at almost any kids’ film today and there will be about a billion pieces of merchandise branded with the name of the property.  That’s not a new phenomenon, but now it seems like a mandate, and a kids’ sports film doesn’t meet that mandate.  If the movie features a real sports team like the Twins or the Angels, then those teams already have the merchandise covered for their brand.  If the studio is even able to create their own merchandise for the movie, those profits would probably have to be shared with the team [Note: this problem can be solved if you turn your movie into a sports team, like Disney did with The Mighty Ducks, but there's a reason that's only happened once in history]  But without the team’s brand, then you just have kids who play sports.  You can create a toy from any movie, but an action figure of some kid playing soccer probably isn’t going to sell when it’s on the shelf next to Iron Man.

It’s tough to dismiss the kids’ sports films of the early 90s as a fad since sports aren’t a fad, nor are little league teams.  Those movies seized on something that was always there and continues to exist.  The marketplace didn’t drastically change in 1996, but the exponential growth of remakes and adaptation have pushed out original properties****.

little-league-baseball-imageAs I said earlier, kids’ sports films weren’t perfect.  Some of the child acting was weak, and the writing was sometimes even weaker, but the movies’ heart was usually in the right place.  Hollywood is always looking to hit home runs in the summer, but they’re willing to go for modest hits in the spring and the fall.  Kids may have far more options for their entertainment, but they’re still playing sports and they’re still watching sports.  It’s easy for me to sit at my desk and tell a studio how to spend their millions, but kids’ sports film never cost a fortune, and kids like seeing themselves on screen doing something they can relate to.  The interest is there, the audience is there, and the schedule is there.  It’s time for off-season to be over, and studios should seriously consider taking the field.

*On a side note relating to Angels in the Outfield, my brother has a bizarre obsession with wanting to know what happened to Milton Davis Jr., the actor who played J.P.  If anyone has any information on Mr. Davis’ current life, please let us know in the comments so that my brother will stop bugging me about it.

**The Gameplan doesn’t count because it’s not a movie about kids playing sports; it’s a movie about Dwyane Johnson‘s character learning not to be a good father.

***I would ask you to forgive the puns, but “singles and doubles” is how Jeffrey Katzenberg referred to Disney’s former strategy in a memo dated in 1991; he left the company in 1994 and went on to found DreamWorks Animation, a studio that always goes for home runs.

****Of the movies I listed, Angels in the Outfield is the only remake.

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  • HomicidalClown

    I’ve never seen “Little Big League”, but you take issue with the Twins’ locker room having a no swearing policy. The Colorado Rockies has a similar policy; they don’t allow porn magazines. It’s not that unreasonable that a locker room could be like that.

  • tyler patrick

    What about The Big Green or Ladybugs?

  • RIC

    It’s easy to see why baseball movies for kids arn’t made anymore given how the sport as a whole is losing popularity in the states. Football movies with kids has always been touchy, although the little giants was successful. These days, hocky would most likely be met with an even colder reception then football giving the immense amount of violence we see in the NHL every night. Other than that, what sports with kids would be interesting? Surely anything with basketball would deal with inner city kids trying to escape the trials and tribulations they face growing up in the hood. That simply isn’t a fun story to tell and parents would most likely skip that engagement.

    • MisterEd

      The Perfect Game (2009)

    • Thunder

      Like Mike! (2002) didn’t see it but young Lipnicki bears a striking resemblance to one of my best friends and I make fun of him sometimes when I see the box cover in a rental shop.

  • RIC

    What we should really long for is the raw high school/college stories. They have a chance to make money and are over all compelling. Friday Night Lights is my favorite sports movie to this day and i’d pay over and over again to see movies like that. There are even tons of college stories that could be made. Take VCU’s run to the final four last night. That would be extremely compelling an fun to watch with a narrative. While there are plenty of true college stories that have been misses on film, there is plenty of potential to make them better.

  • Anon

    Here are some sports movies featuring kids that were made in the last decade; Air Bud movies (1997-2003), Hard Ball (2001), Like Mike (2002), Kicking and Screaming (2005), Rebound (2005), Bad News Bears (2005). Honorable mentions include; The Rookie, She’s the man, Bend it like Beckham, Remember the titans and all the crappy direct to DVD sequels (Sandlot 2, 3, 4, etc). Since kids sports movies are not blockbusters they’ve mostly become direct to DVD releases.

    • MisterEd

      And…. The Perfect Game (2009)

  • The Unnatural

    “Baseball may be popular in first-world countries like the U.S., Canada (i.e. Toronto since they have a team), and Japan …but the rest of the world doesn’t have much interest in the game beyond the Olympics. ”

    I find the use of “first-world” really odd here – the majority of first world countries aren’t into baseball after all – but then like most non-Americans I find the idea of a “world series” that only features, two countries pretty odd too.

    That said I do think baseball as a sport and a subject for movies is far more interesting than cricket! The original Bad News Bears rules the sporty kids genre too.

  • MisterEd

    I guess the author if this article stopped watching baseball movies with kids in them back in the 90′s… here’s some he missed:

    1. Chasing 3000 (2008)

    2. The Perfect Game (2009)

  • stove

    no classics?! or are you just saying that due to the name of a certain farting goalie?

  • Scott

    Baseball is still a 7.5 billion dollar industry in the u.s so I think it’s still popular. Everytime I go to a game in Atlanta the stadium is full of kids and frat boy types, which is kind of a weird combination. Also the whole first world comment is kind of weird too because baseball is by far most popular in Latin American countries like Cuba and Venezuela. It’s also extremely popular in Japan like you mentioned.

    But the real reason there aren’t kid sports movies is a lot of kids just aren’t into sports the way they were in my generation, early 90s. Kids today are more into movies and video games. I live in alabama which is college football hot bed but I have noticed that a lot of kids and teenagers wear alabama and auburn shirts and hats but they don’t really watch the games or know the players like my generation did growing up in the 90s. So I think that is large part of your answer sports in general just aren’t that popular amongst a lot of kids today.

  • Mike

    I sort of blacked out and started raging after the whole “Sandlot isn’t a classic thing.” Good article but that’s simply not true. A whole generation grew up with that film and its iconography is fresh on our minds. It’s the sort of movie that people of a certain age (early-mid 20s) cannot believe their friends haven’t seen. Having a few historical sugar coating moments doesn’t negate it as a classic with countless memorable moments and serious staying power across future generations.

    That being said I enjoyed the editorial

  • Kenny B

    Funky butt lovin!

    • James

      this will be engraved on my tombstone

  • Rockslide

    A lot of things have already been said, but from my perspective I also agree that interest in sports in general is and has been on the decline. I’m not trying to say it is gone or ever will be gone, but it definitely is not what it used to be. A lot of the rising generation have much more varied interests. Nerd culture is on the rise.

    @Kenny – that line will always be one the most classic in movie history. I remember rewinding the movie several times to hear that again.

  • Craig

    MAN! I can’t believe that I never realized that the kid in Angels in the Outfield was JGL. That blows my mind now. I watched that movie so many times as a kid it is permanently engraved in my eyeballs.

  • Greg Pincus

    I think the biggest problem truly is economics – both in how studios make movies now AND the fact that most of these movies were not financial blowouts at the box office. But even forgetting the box office record, just look at studio releases and see how few star kids for kids… and of those that exist, see if any of them aren’t based on a known property (a book like Wimpy Kid, for example). Sports movies still get made, though sometimes its on cable (61 comes to mind) or with a story that makes them less “sporty” (like Blind Side)… but the current cycle is certainly not a good one for kids playing any sport.

    I hope that changes, but I doubt something like Little Big League would get made today… and financially, that might be the smart call. Go figure.

  • Charles Judson

    Strange that the 1994-1995 Baseball strike wasn’t mentioned or factored in. Most execs would have likely killed any and all baseball films in production for kids. Not just due to the bad publicity, but I’m sure not having Baseball games to attach ads to was a factor.

    I would also say the video market probably helped kill off some of these types of films theatrically.

    And two last factors, going back to the MLB, is Baseball’s move to appeal to adults more than kids, especially in trying to win back fans. More night games and adult advertising probably didn’t look too good a bet for studios over time. And, in the 1990s Basketball was looking more and more like a threat to Baseball’s dominance as America’s Favorite past time, which never really happened. But, what came out in 1996 and 1997? That would be Space Jam and Air Bud.

    Side note, in terms of blocking and staging, Baseball is a easier sport to shoot than either Basketball, Football or Hockey. Just think of how many iconic scenes in Baseball are just characters standing in relatively static positions and the tension built as much through editing as anything else. Wouldn’t be surprised if producers and studios in the 1990s realized it was easier to move on from sports.

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  • SportsFan

    Think we should be specific here and substitute “boys” for every usage of the word “kids.” The fact that both genders play sports is not even acknowledged in major motion pictures.

  • kids

    Very nice article, plus some hilarious comments!!

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