Reflections

Why Storytellers Should Watch the Women’s World Cup

I hear it all the time.

“I don’t do sports.”

Everywhere I turn I find more artists and creatives who turn up their nose at athletics because they don’t understand them or they think it’s just not their thing.

I’m not sure what causes the indignation toward sporting events. Perhaps these folks are plagued by a negative experience involving an over-zealous youth soccer coach. Maybe they have memories of getting hit in the face with a ball and never going back to the court. It could be they just don’t think they’re very good at sports and so tune out.

Some of these people have told me that they just don’t understand the rules of sports, but I never understood how someone can look down at sports as a less intelligent pursuit while proclaiming at the same time it’s too complicated for them to understand.

Odds are if you’re one of the above people, you may have stopped reading already because you think this blog post is “not your thing” either. If you did make it to this paragraph, I invite you to reconsider an anti-sports position.

The sporting industry is in the same business as Hollywood. It wants to showcase amazing stories to viewers and fans. Don’t believe me?

Toward the end of 2014, Lebron James, a basketball phenom from Akron, Ohio, left his star-studded NBA team in Miami and came home to Cleveland. Ohio was ecstatic. Lebron was considered by many to be the best living basketball player, perhaps one of the best of all time.

The pressure was intense. Lebron had helped other teams reach the NBA Finals. Could he do the same for Cleveland? Or was Ohio cursed? After all, no Ohio sports had won a major title since the 60s.

Lebron and his teammate Kyrie Irving brought the Cavaliers to the finals in 2015, losing against the Golden State Warriors 4 games to 2.

The next year, Lebron, Irving, and the Cavs fought their way back to the finals for a rematch against the Warriors. The stakes were high. It was win or bust for Ohio and Lebron’s reputation as one of the greatest players of all time hung in the balance.

The teams battled back and forth, each earning their fair share of wins, and finally found themselves in Sacramento to play Game 7. The finals are decided in a Best-of-7 format. Whoever won would take the title.

Here’s what happened:

The NBA Finals that year reported a viewership of over 20 million televisions, one of the highest ever. Why? The story of the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers breaking an over 50-year-old curse with a hometown hero is just a great story. I mean look at how Cleveland reacted.

Strangers hugging strangers. Most authors would give their left arm to generate this type of emotion in an audience.

Now rewind the clock to 2007, when the NBA Finals had a viewership of less than half of 2016. 9.6 million people tuned in to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers lose to the San Antonio Spurs 4 games to 0. It was a sweep. Going into the post-season, everyone expected the Spurs to win. They did win. It wasn’t even a contest. It was boring.

From a business perspective, would you really care about how “well” the Spurs played in 2007? No. You want to see an amazing story unfold in front of your eyes. You want to see a team that works hard to get where they are and defeat the odds.

Storytelling isn’t meant to be exclusive. In my opinion, the split between artists and jocks should have ended with high school graduation.

Malcolm Gladwell is a fabulous writer. In my opinion, he is one of the better storytellers of our generation because Malcolm Gladwell can take a set of facts and figures and turn them into a thrilling full-length book. Not a lot of people can do that.

I took his Masterclass, and I was delighted to discover how much time he spent on character building and world building. Even in his journalism-inspired writing style, he is working with the same tools that fiction authors struggle with. He brings up the necessity for non-fiction authors to sort through piles of information to find what’s most important and most effective at communicating the heart of a story.

I think sports is a wonderfully unique type of non-fiction. Think of it as one of the largest expanded universe stories of all time. The rules of the game remain basically the same over decades, but new characters emerge every year, each with a more interesting story than the last.

If you’re a creative or a storyteller, I invite you to tune into the Women’s World Cup this year. Much like having a Harry Potter house, if you look into the stories behind the players and the teams, you’ll find a group that resonates with you. Cheer them on. Notice the similarities between a dance recital and a sporting event. Pay attention to the same intricacies you might find at an improv comedy show. Appreciate the way that producers sort through volumes of information and myriad camera angles to bring you one unique narrative. See how much emotion the players experience, how high the stakes are, the potential to have a name recorded in history because of a single moment of virtuosity.

Here are a few storylines to get you started:

The U.S. team is a powerhouse, but they have a world of expectations on their shoulders and they’ve been distracted by battles for gender equity in sports off the field. Will that affect their performance or can they repeat their title as world champions?

Norway has a promising team, but they’re playing without their best player Ada Hegerberg, who is boycotting the tournament until Norway’s women’s team is allowed access to the same resources and mess hall as the men’s team.

France is the host nation, and their team has a great shot at winning the tournament. Years ago, when Japan was ravaged by a tsunami, their women’s team beat the U.S. in a stunning final match to take home the trophy, lifting the nation’s morale. After Notre Dame’s burning earlier this year, France could also use a pick me up. If the French can win, they will be the first country in history to win both the men’s and women’s world cup concurrently.

If you staked your battle on the hill of anti-sports, I’m sorry you won’t be able to participate in a fraternity and sorority of cultural appreciation. Under which other banner do so many nations come together in such a unified cause?

If you can’t recognize the poetry in sports, how do you expect to recognize the poetry in much darker, uglier things?

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