On the surface, the Dwayne Johnson vehicle seems rather harmless. Like “Entourage” before it, “Ballers” follows a core group of friends – current and former NFL players and some of their advisers – on a roller-coaster ride through the headiest of lifestyles, where sex and debauchery are available for the taking, albeit at the cost of disrupting their careers. HBO has deemed the show successful enough to be worth a second season, even before the first bunch of originals complete their cycle.
What’s the problem? Like many media companies, HBO parent Time Warner may want to secure more rights to show live sports. A move made by its Turner Broadcasting unit last October to reup its deal to show National Basketball Association games through the 2024-25 season is widely regarded as a coup, despite the hefty pricetag. And a pact Turner struck with CBS in 2010 to share rights to carry the NCAA men’s basketball tournament brings broad audiences to networks like TNT, TBS and TruTV every year. Starting next year, CBS and Turner will alternate coverage of the championship game in the tournament, a big step for cable.
Turner could get another swipe at a big sports property in the months to come. CBS’ deal with the National Football League to show a package of eight Thursday-night games is set to expire, after the NFL renewed its option for a second year, and the League could well turn to rival sports broadcasters like Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal and Time Warner to see if it can snare a higher price. Turner made its case for the package before the NFL decided to go with CBS, and there’s no reason to think executives there wouldn’t raise their hands again if things led in that direction.
If only they didn’t have to do so with “Ballers” among their parent company’s coterie of programs.
“Ballers” hasn’t generated the huzzahs accorded HBO fare like “Game of Thrones” or “Boardwalk Empire,” but it’s a compelling series that takes an unvarnished look at the lives of fictional NFL players. Johnson, the actor who once wrestled for the WWE under the nom de plume “the Rock,” plays a retired gridiron warrior who has turned to a career in financial planning as a means of staying afloat, all the while wondering if he’s suffering from taking too many knocks in the head during his days the playing field. He mentors and pals around with current players who are prone to snorting cocaine and acting badly in public. One character, picked up by the Miami Dolphins despite a reputation for bad behavior, even maintains a hidden villa for illicit sexual hookups for himself and his friends. The program’s opening theme is the expletive-laden “Right Above It” by Lil Wayne and Drake.
The show is on point. The NFL has had to grapple with any number of incidents involving its players in recent months – from Tom Brady’s deflated football to Ray Rice’s violent outburst to Jason Pierre-Paul’s fireworks-mangled hand – and “Ballers” does not shy away from that reality.
In the past, however, such stuff has annoyed the league. In 2003 Walt Disney’s ESPN unveiled an 11-episode scripted series called “Playmakers” that showed a football player hiding cocaine in the glove compartment of a car when approached by police; another stealing morphine from a sick child to help with a drug addiction; and a third assaulting his wife.
Among NFL constituents, the series left a bad taste. ”How would they like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said at a press conference in 2003, referring to ESPN’s parent.
Paul Tagliabue, then the Commissioner of the National Football League, complained to Michael Eisner, then chief executive and chairman of Walt Disney. The sports-cable network announced in 2004 that “Playmakers” would not air again. “It’s our opinion that we’re not in the business of antagonizing our partner, even though we’ve done it, and continued to carry it over the NFL’s objections,” Mark Shapiro, then an ESPN executive vice president, told the New York Times. “To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner’s face.” John Eisendrath, the creator and executive producer of the series, told the paper he thought the NFL executives who put ESPN under pressure were “bullies.”
An NFL spokesman declined to comment on what views league executives might have of “Ballers.” And HBO declined to make producers of the show available to discuss the inspiration behind the series’ storylines.
It’s not as if HBO hasn’t gone down this path before. Between 1984 and 1991, the network featured the antics of the fictional football team the California Bulls in “First and Ten,” an early stab at providing boundary-crossing TV series to subscribers. The show had nudity and profanity, players using drugs, pranks, and Delta Burke, before she found wider fame on CBS’ “Designing Women” in 1986.
In 2016, a spate of Thursday-night football games could do a lot for the Turner networks. TBS and TNT are in the midst of recalibrating their programming lineups under a new entertainment boss, Kevin Reilly. And top-flight live sports still seem to be the sort of thing that pulls people together in a viewing community, rather than giving them reason to jettison cable for video streaming.
It’s hard to believe a bawdy series about life off the football field could become strike such a sour note. But one has before, and the NFL – at least for now – has one of few TV properties other than zombies that bring people to the TV screen in the biggest groups possible. Should Time Warner and the NFL come to the table over Thursday-night football, the company may find itself between “the Rock” and a hard place.