Could HBO’s Ballers be a problem for Time Warner if the company wants to make a deeper push into broadcasting live sports, particularly the NFL?
That’s the theory posed by Variety‘s Brian Steinberg, who speculates that Turner Sports may want to expand its coverage beyond the NBA and NCAA Tournament. A natural target might be the NFL’s Thursday night package, the eight-game set that will become available when CBS’ deal expires after this coming season.
This seems like a stretch since Turner hasn’t really been close to acquiring the Thursday night package. But Steinberg reasons that the NFL may seek bidding from other sports media conglomerates like Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal and Time Warner to try and drive up the price for those eight games. That seems plausible, considering the NFL and CBS agreed to only a one-year extension for Thursday Night Football back in January. But there haven’t been many indications that Turner is contemplating getting involved in such an auction.
However, the idea that Ballers could be some kind of obstacle for Time Warner possibly going into business with the NFL should send Dwayne Johnson’s right eyebrow arching high upon his forehead.
The natural comparison to draw is between Ballers and ESPN’s Playmakers, which ran for 11 episodes on the network in 2003. That series explored the dark side of professional football, depicting a variety of unseemly behavior such as cocaine and steroid abuse, taking urine injections to beat drug tests, domestic violence incidents and players having affairs with television reporters. Essentially, all the sins of pro sports were carried about by the fictional Cougars.
The NFL didn’t much care for such a negative portrayal — fictional or otherwise — from a broadcast partner that televised its games and exerted pressure on ESPN to cancel the series.
“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,” ESPN’s then-executive vice president Mark Shapiro told the New York Times in 2004. “To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner’s face.”
But to this point, the NFL hasn’t expressed any sort of disapproval of behavior or storylines depicted by athletes on Ballers. The half-hour dramedy is even allowed to use official team logos and uniforms without requiring permission from the league. Though there have been plot developments involving players involved with nightclub fights and blackmail schemes, the troubles portrayed on the series are comparatively tame.
Arguably, the most intriguing characters and stories through Ballers‘ first seven episodes have dealt with the struggle to deal with life after football. Johnson’s character, Spencer Strasmore, fears repercussions from a traumatic brain injury. Another feels he may have retired too early, taking a job as a car salesman. While brain injuries and taking care of former players is a very real concern for the NFL, there’s nothing objectionable in Ballers‘ portrayal of those matters. But if the show depicts a quarterback deflating footballs and destroying cell phones in its second season (which HBO has already picked up), perhaps we can revisit this topic.
Yet even if Ballers did push the envelope, would the fiercely independent HBO even be swayed by the NFL’s concerns? The network just hired Bill Simmons, after all, who’s been as publicly critical of commissioner Roger Goodell — especially regarding his handling of the DeflateGate scandal — involving Simmons’ beloved Patriots as anyone. HBO would likely welcome the controversy, as it has with storylines on shows such as Game of Thrones and Girls.
But above all, would the NFL dare to shut down anything involving Johnson, one of the biggest stars in pop culture right now? The man is a marquee superstar, one of the few who can open a movie based on his presence alone. San Andreas is the sixth-highest grossing film this summer, and that occurred without the benefit of a superhero outfit or established media property. HBO surely considers itself fortunate to having an international action hero headline one of its shows.
Johnson has also become a social media superpower and if he complained on Facebook or Instagram to his legion of fans about his show being canceled because of NFL pressure, that would be yet another public relations debacle. Goodell can take on Tom Brady, but does he really want a piece of The Rock?