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GLOW is just the start: 16 unusual athletic events deserving TV dramatization

<i>GLOW</i> is just the start: 16 unusual athletic events deserving TV dramatization
Photo: Double Dare (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images), Roller Derby in 1953 (Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images), chess boxing (Sampics/Corbis via Getty Images), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
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Much of the fun in watching Netflix’s hit comedy GLOW lies in peeking behind the curtain of a left-field televised athletic event. The less-than-auspicious beginnings of the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling are detailed in exacting fashion, from its outsized personalities to the emotional fireworks that spark among the assembled players, all of which makes for compelling serialized drama. But the distaff WWE isn’t the only real-world athletic undertaking that could be mined for fictional fun. Here are The A.V. Club’s recommendations for potential TV shows that could be made from sporting competitions that are niche, unusual, or just plain cool.

1. American Ninja Warrior

Good drama takes you on an emotional journey, so the contestants of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior already have a tailor-made metaphor at the ready. Based on the televised Japanese competition show Sasuke, the series follows amateur athletes as they attempt to make their way through a series of increasingly difficult obstacle courses, all in hopes of making it to the final in Las Vegas and being crowned the title hero. It features a panoply of often unusual characters embarking on what they hope will be a season-long mission, and the show gives audiences just enough of a glimpse at the private lives of noteworthy Warriors to make us wonder what really goes on during their time away from the course. Over 10 seasons, competitors have routinely become teammates, friends, and more—it wouldn’t take much to translate this paean to human determination into sudsy fiction. [Alex McLevy]

2. Game Of Arms

If series premiere ratings are any indication, the world is hungry for some drama set in the world of competitive arm wrestling. Back in 2014, the debut of competition show Game Of Arms drew more than 1 million viewers—AMC’s highest-rated reality premiere ever. Showcasing arm wrestling clubs in five different cities across America, the burly men featured often sacrificed health, jobs, and family to compete, revealing the cost of trying to embody a hypermasculine, king-of-the-hill approach to life. Seeing the true personalities behind the all-badass-all-the-time facades would make for a powerful serialized story in a world that is currently seeing men choking on the old-school gendered assumptions they were taught. Plus, something has to challenge Sylvester Stallone’s Over The Top for best dramatized arm-wrestling. [Alex McLevy]

3. Laser Tag

Though it’s primarily associated with kids’ birthday parties, drunk adults, and any other group that wants to play paintball but doesn’t want to get hurt, laser tag is actually considered a competitive sport by some, the most dedicated of whom gather every few years for the Zone Laser Tag World Championships held rotating host countries. You could certainly squeeze a good comedy-drama series out of these international players who adopt colorful names like Slick, Triggahappy, and Mr. Freeze, then dedicate themselves to getting really, really good at firing plastic guns while rolling through fog machines. But it could be even more interesting to document the rise of laser tag itself through the story of inventor George Carter III, who took inspiration from Star Wars to create the first Photon arenas in 1984, brought in Fleetwood Mac producer Ken Caillat to create its dramatic music, then—dovetailing with Worlds Of Wonder’s own Lazer Tag home system released around the same time—watched as laser tag become a genuine global phenomenon, spawning scores of local arenas, tie-in books, video games, and kids’ TV shows before the fad abruptly ended and both Photon and Worlds Of Wonder went out of business. Whatever version of the story you choose, it’s bound to be better than either Photon or Lazer Tag Academy. [Sean O’Neal]

4. SlamBall

Mason Gordon was a man with a dream, a dream in which human athletes soared above the rim like a turbocharged NBA Jam sprite and/or the Phoenix Suns Gorilla. Mike Tollin was a TV and film producer with a thing for sports, whose résumé included most of Nickelodeon’s mid-to-late-’90s lineup, but also Varsity Blues, Hardball, and Arli$$. Together, they would teach athletes to fly, in a trampoline-assisted, full-contact sport combining elements of basketball, hockey, and football. The acrobatics make SlamBall a TV-ready spectacle, but there’s plenty of conflict to be mined here: Will athletes who came up playing different sports learn how to get along? Can Gordon manage expectations as both SlamBall proprietor and participant? Who thought it was a good idea to name one the teams the Chicago Mob? And will a sport that’s all about defying gravity ever manage to land with a broadcaster for more than one season? [Erik Adams]

5. Pinks!

If the Fast & Furious franchise can provide some dramatic stakes for car racing on the big screen (or at least used to, back when the film series cared about such pedestrian matters), surely the small screen could do the same? Pinks was a street racing show that aired on Speed TV (now Fox Sports 1), a channel dedicated to motorsports, and gave audiences the reality-TV version of being at an underground race club. Setting up shop at closed drag strips throughout the country, two teams and drivers would sign over legal ownership of their cars to the show’s production company, the better to insure the winner doesn’t welch on the terms: Winner takes both cars. Real people, real cars, real stakes—those are backstories (and current dramas) waiting to happen. [Alex McLevy]

6. Fight Girls

What makes Fight Girls so promising for a potential dramatization isn’t just the setup—10 women living together in a house as they train for six weeks in hopes of fighting in a Muay Thai championship in Thailand—but the opportunity to investigate the sociopolitical stakes of the situation. True, it’s basically a distaff version of Spike TV’s Ultimate Fighter, but whereas that series is at 27 seasons and counting, Fight Girls only lasted one, for good reason: The men compete for a UFC contract; the women, for the “privilege” of traveling to Thailand to fight Thai women for whom Muay Thai may be their only option, not a fun fitness gig. That’s a messy knot of class, ethnicity, and gender just waiting to be explored from both sides of an uneven economic divide. Mentor Gina Carano could even play herself. [Alex McLevy]

7. American Gladiators

An American Gladiators movie has been rumored since at least 2009—a decades-later realization of a concept creator Johnny Ferraro says he originally packaged as a film, before it “took a detour” to becoming an era-defining hit in the early ’90s. That movie was pitched as a tired superheroes concept, but it would be far more interesting as a series that, like GLOW, looked behind the scenes at another show that gave washed-out athletes a second chance at celebrity, having them adopt cartoony names like Nitro, Laser, and Hawk, then beat the shit out of regular Joes with giant hamster balls. There’s plenty of rich comedy-drama territory to mine there, from the original casting calls that brought in struggling former footballers and wrestlers to audition for a weird futuristic game show; to the scrappy early days of taping in front of confused and bored Universal Studios tourists, while the crew painted faces on plywood to create the illusion of sellout crowds; to all the backstage bacchanals of steroids, painkillers, and free-for-all Gladiator sex (“Half the team was lesbians at one time,” Raye “Zap” Hollitt told Maxim in 2008). More broadly, the show would be about how American Gladiators helped create a world where getting your ass beat on reality TV competitions became just another road to stardom, an always-timely story in our current fame-obsessed climate. Also like GLOW, all those skintight bodysuits, the gloriously feathered hair, and its general glam-metal energy give this story one hell of a nostalgic hook—one that would appeal to a lot more audiences than whatever fictionalized bullshit the movie has in mind. [Sean O’Neal]

8. Real-world Quidditch

The nice thing about making a TV drama out of real-world Quidditch is that you’ve got your underdog story built right in. A whole league of them, in fact, given that it’s an entire sport made up of athletic Harry Potter nerds who don’t mind people watching them run around a soccer field with a broom clamped between their legs, yelling about “bludger superiority.” It’s surprisingly violent, too (as revealed in the 2014 documentary Mudbloods), but the real potential for drama lies in the human stories: What is Chaser Dave supposed to do when his former best friend Carl becomes Keeper for the Winsingtin Winges? Can Seeker Carrie keep her crush on the league’s official “Snitch Runner,” Jessica, from getting in the way of the game? What will everybody do when J.K. Rowling sues the shit out of them for copyright infringement? The possibilities are magically endless! [William Hughes]

9. Roller Derby

You could easily mine roller derby’s television past to cook up a show that does for GLOW what series like Pan Am and The Playboy Club did for Mad Men. The high-speed, high-contact sport was on the airwaves for decades, including two cable shows—RollerGames and RollerJam—that infused it with manufactured drama and plenty of hallmarks from professional wrestling. More interesting, though, would be a show based on the communities of real-life women who revived and legitimized derby after the turn of the millennium. In fact, there are multiple seasons worth of drama baked right into the creation, split, and legacy of the Texas all-female derby league that helped kickstart the sport’s global resurrection. That way, you’d actually be matching derby’s natural color and action with some real stories of camaraderie, conflict, and empowerment. [Matt Gerardi]

10. Chess boxing

Chess boxing really is just those two things smushed together, so why not take a cue from its composite parts and give us a serialized Rocky-style boxing drama with a twist? Maybe center it on a disgraced meathead boxer who gets ejected from the big leagues and sees this strange sport as his way to redemption—only he’s never played chess in his life. Instead of montages full of punching meat and running up stairs, he’d be doing high-intensity chess drills, most of them inevitably ending with him flinging the board in frustration. Give him a long-suffering girlfriend who’s the real fighter in this relationship and a dastardly Russian chess-genius rival, and you’re golden. [Matt Gerardi]

11. Double Dare and the entire Nickelodeon “obstacle course TV” roster

Though the contestants are important, the real stars of Nickelodeon’s various obstacle course-based shows are the courses themselves. That means a dramatized version of these shows would work best as an anthology series, with each season focusing on a new group of kids running across fake logs, bouncing on trampolines, or struggling to assemble a monkey statue. Season one is Double Dare, with a major storyline revolving around two teammates arguing over who will throw the pies and who will catch the pies. Season two is Global Guts, with an added angle of international intrigue, and season three dips into horror for the temple guards of Legends Of The Hidden Temple. Season four loops back around for a sequel to the first season with Family Double Dare, introducing the parents of the original heroes. They’d just need to find someone who can play Marc Summers. [Sam Barsanti]

12. Extreme dodgeball

Any fictionalized version of Extreme Dodgeball—the 2004 GSN series that saw the Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn vehicle Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and thought, “We’ll have one of those”—would probably do well to create as much distance between itself and that movie as possible. The solution: Lean hard into the symbolic potential of the sport’s defining trait, and keep the matches completely offscreen. Instead, this droll dramedy focuses on the leader of a support group who’s convinced that Extreme Dodgeball’s pro-wrestling-like spectacle is just what the group needs to get over their avoidance-coping issues. And thus are born Evasive Maneuvers, a motley crew who meets up every week to confront Extreme Dodgeball’s Big Ball in a way they can’t when it comes to the challenges of everyday life. Episodes pivot between group meetings and locker-room pep talks, as the unbreakable bonds of teamwork are forged, Extreme Dodgeball rules like the “Dead Man Walking” are plumbed for emotional ballast, and the members of Evasive Maneuvers—whose uniforms consist of modified flight suits—find the closure GSN never has in its post-Match Game era. [Erik Adams]

13. World’s Strongest Man

This competition has a built-in, telegenic star: Current World’s Strongest Man Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. Keep the spotlight on him, as he uses his might and title to assist a dysfunctional family in their greatest hour of need. Maybe he has a brother, too, and they don’t get along either, a rivalry stemming from some long ago trauma inflicted by Björnsson’s character. Give him a fun nickname—say, just spitballing here, The Mountain—and make sure his most memorable moments involve feats of strength only the World’s Strongest Man could achieve, like cracking another man’s skull with his bare hands. Are we just re-pitching Game Of Thrones, in which Björnsson plays the fearsome Gregor Clegane? Sure, but what could be a surer thing in this uncertain TV climate? Plus, in this version, every once in a while he tows a ship into the harbor at King’s Landing or something. [Erik Adams]

14. Super Bikes!

While host Jason Britton used his stunt-bike skills as the main draw for reality series Super Bikes! back in the mid-2000s, some of the most interesting relationships depicted weren’t between the various stunt bike and competition riders, but between people and their motorbikes. An anthology-style show exploring the loving care and attention individual people give to their treasured bikes—and the variegated reasons they spend all their time shunted away from the rest of the world, focused on this small motorized vehicle, would make for a fine program, à la HBO’s Room 104. Just let these obsessive people and their bikes make an entrance; from there, anything can happen. [Alex McLevy]

15. The XFL

For a brief time in the early 2000s, the raging ’roid pimple on the backside of American life had a name: The XFL. Conceived as a combination of pro football and pro wrestling by the WWE’s Vince McMahon, the XFL whipped viewers into a frenzy with strong personalities, staged conflict, scantily dressed cheerleaders, and on-air commentary from master hype men like Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross, turning up the heat for matches between teams with names like the New Jersey Hitmen and Los Angeles Xtreme. The XFL was an unequivocal disaster when it launched in 2001, shutting down after only one season on NBC. But with McMahon threatening to unleash it upon the public once more, a satirical dramedy chronicling the XFL’s first (and so, far, only) season would provide an illuminating look at the origins of our current, dumb cultural era. [Katie Rife]

16. Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest

In person, watching competitive eating is disgusting. (It’s the smell, mostly.) But on TV, watching determined weirdos shoving fistfuls of wet hot dog down their gullets with the sort of steely intensity you usually only see in starving animals is oddly fascinating, both from a competitive viewpoint and as a ritual enactment of consumerism in its most excessive form. (It helps to dunk the hot dog buns into a glass of water before inhaling them, you see.) The behind-the-scenes struggle between Japan and America for the title of most voracious hot-dog eater also provides a compelling dramatic angle: You could milk several seasons of a GLOW-type comedy series out of the rivalry between Takeru “The Prince” Kobayashi, who more than doubled the hot-dog eating record during his six-year reign as Nathan’s Famous champ in the early-to-mid ’00s, and Joey “The Jaws” Chestnut, who reclaimed the mustard-yellow belt for America in 2007 and has been dominating the contest ever since. [Katie Rife]