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The Real Reason Ballers Is Ending

You may know him as a former WWE star turned actor, but Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson once dreamed of playing in the NFL. He played football at the University of Miami, but his years on the team didn't lead to the future he'd hoped for — he was never drafted after graduation. But he later realized that early dream in an unexpected way: In 2014, the pilot for his series Ballers was picked up by HBO, and the raunchy, hilarious sports comedy quickly became one of the most popular shows on the network. Ballers stars Johnson as Spencer Strasmore, a retired football player who transitions into a new role managing the finances of other NFL players. With so much money flowing through their hands, Strasmore and his friends and clients like to have a good time — but with big money comes major baggage. 

Early seasons of Ballers were a hit with audiences and critics, but later episodes didn't enjoy the same positive reception. Roughly coinciding with the fifth season of Ballers, which premiered in August 2019, Johnson announced in an emotional Instagram video that it would be the show's last. Naturally, fans are curious about why the show won't be returning. Here's why HBO decided it was time for Ballers to wrap up its run. 

Ballers started striking out with the critics

When Ballers premiered, the show received glowing reviews — the first season earned an 81% "Fresh" rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, drawing favorable comparisons to other successful HBO shows and being described as "the NFL version of Entourage." 

"Ballers succeeds in making you care what happens to these brutes in a fame bubble, with the hope that they'll wise up before it all bursts," wrote Matt Roush for TV Insider. HBO may be primarily known for producing more serious shows like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Westworld, but shows like Ballers proved that their comedy lineup was solid, too. 

Season 2 was a satisfying follow-up, but by season 3, the critics had gone lukewarm on Ballers, with that "Fresh" rating slipping to 67%. "Watching Ballers is mindless enjoyment, but the show also feels completely disposable, with characters that, while entertaining and decently acted, don't leave a big impression at the end of the day," wrote Bernard Boo for We Got This Covered. Since then, the show seems to have slipped off the radar for many pundits. Like a lineman trying to run an interception the length of the field, it just couldn't keep up that initial momentum. 

Ratings became a problem for Ballers

It isn't just the critics who lost interest in Ballers — by the time the third season rolled around, audience numbers had started dropping off, too. As Johnson stated in his Instagram video, Ballers used to be the highest-rated comedy series on HBO. However, it couldn't sustain that status. During the first two seasons, viewership was high, and the future of the show looked bright. But viewership fell during season 3, and the show saw a noticeable decline in popularity.

After season 3, the metrics never quite rebounded to the levels the show enjoyed earlier in its run. Toward the end of season 4, the numbers started looking truly lackluster, with only 600,000 people watching the season finale. HBO hasn't confirmed that falling ratings were the issue leading to Ballers' cancellation, but it's quite likely that this was a significant consideration when deciding on the future of the show. The audience just wasn't sticking around to see what happened next. 

Ballers season 5 isn't a ratings rebound

Now that viewers know Ballers is on its way out, are they returning to see if it ends on a high note? Unfortunately for HBO, Johnson, and the rest of the cast and crew, the answer is no. In fact, season 5 has had the lowest ratings of any season so far. Only 450,000 people watched one episode in late September of 2019; at the time, the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes sat at a disappointing 33 percent. 

Ballers entered its fifth season far from the comedy draw that it once was; after season 4, it seems likely that the higher-ups at HBO realized that the ratings weren't going to pick up again and return to the numbers enjoyed by the show at its peak. Although the fans still watching will be sad to see it go, it looks like this is actually the right time to wrap up Ballers' storylines and say goodbye to the characters. It's far better than dragging the show further past its prime. 

Time for Ballers to tie up loose ends

The good news about Ballers' cancellation? It wasn't a snap decision. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson and everyone else working on the show knew before the writing process began for season 5, so episodes were planned "with an endgame in mind."

The fifth season of Ballers deals with Strasmore coming out of retirement for an enticing offer: becoming the first black majority team owner in the NFL. After walking away from working with Strasmore, Joe Krutel (Rob Corddry) seeks new business opportunities for himself and his current partner Lance Klians (Russell Brand) — but Klians' extreme sports cable network, Sports X, is struggling to stay afloat. Vernon Littlefield (Donovan W. Carter) considers whether it's time for him to leave football behind for good, while Ricky (John David Washington) and Charles (Omar Benson Miller) deal with tensions of their own.

There remains no shortage of drama, in other words — and since the writers weren't blindsided by the cancellation, they had the opportunity to plan satisfactory endings, meaning fans won't be left with cliffhangers that remain forever unresolved.

Ballers started facing competition from other HBO shows

As Ballers started to slip in the ratings, other HBO shows started getting mainstream attention — like the Bill Hader-led Barry — and ended up being surprising hits. Barry, which stars Hader as a hitman turned unlikely improv actor, was renewed for a third season shortly after its second one concluded in 2019. In addition to drawing in over 2.21 million viewers for its season 2 finale, Barry has already been nominated for 30 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning three in its first season alone. It's now considered a comedy cornerstone at HBO — a status that Ballers had a lock on during its early seasons. 

Every hit series has its heyday. There are only so many shows that a given network can invest in at a time, and at some point, tough decisions have to be made about which ones will get the axe. With Ballers aging and a new crop of popular series on the schedule, it's easy to understand why HBO execs might have felt it was the right time to make room.

Dwayne Johnson's busy schedule

Dwayne Johnson always seems to be juggling several projects, and his schedule for the next few years is already quite full. If HBO had pushed for another season of Ballers, he might have wanted to move forward with it, but now that Ballers is ending, he has more time to dedicate to his upcoming films. 

First up is his Netflix action comedy Red Notice with Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, which is scheduled for a November 2020 release and follows the adventures of a secret agent tasked with the challenge of tracking down the world's most wanted art thief. After that, we'll be seeing Johnson again in the Shazam! spinoff Black Adam, in which he'll playing the film's titular character and anti-hero. Johnson also recently lent his voice to the video game WWE 2K20, and he's going to be in the films Jumanji: The Next Level and Jungle Cruise. Ballers may be retiring, but Johnson definitely isn't. 

Ballers' star is producing new projects

When it comes to his work in the entertainment industry, Dwayne Johnson is genuinely a jack of all trades. He's not just an actor — he's also done voice work (including singing in Moana), appeared in documentaries, and produced films and TV shows. He produced several films released in 2019, including Fighting with My Family, and Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, both of which he also appeared in — double duty he'll also be pulling for the upcoming Jumanji and Jungle Cruise films. He's a producer for Red Notice and Black Adam as well — clearly, at this point in his career, he likes to have a lot of control over his projects. 

Johnson is also signed on as the executive producer for The Janson Directive, a John Cena-led thriller about a former Navy SEAL who goes on the run when a rescue operation goes off the rails. Johnson definitely has his plate full right now, and Ballers wasn't his only focus. 

Ballers got caught up in HBO's transitions

HBO practically invented the concept of prestige TV, and after helping usher in a new "golden age of television," the network seems to be in a transitional phase. Ballers isn't the only high-profile HBO series ending in 2019. In May, the highly anticipated final season of Game of Thrones revealed who ended up on the throne, and the political satire Veep finished its seven-season run. The Deuce is also wrapping up, and the sixth season of Silicon Valley is its last. 

In place of these shows, HBO is experimenting with new offerings like the gritty team drama Euphoria, black comedy Succession, and The Righteous Gemstones, which follows a fictional family of televangelists. So far, nothing has matched the success of Game of Thrones, which is quite a tough act to follow, but HBO is also promoting new releases in completely different genres to appeal to a variety of viewers. In the midst of a transition, they have to be emphasizing shows that will still be able to pick up new viewers a few years down the line. Ballers simply wasn't fitting the bill anymore. 

Ballers creator Stephen Levinson is moving on

Now that Ballers has been canceled, creator, writer, and executive producer Stephen Levinson also has some new projects in the pipeline. Levinson has been with Ballers since the beginning, but now, he's moving forward and working behind the scenes on an upcoming TV series and a couple of films. 

Levinson served as the executive producer on McMillions, a TV documentary series that breaks down the baffling McDonald's Monopoly game scam of the 1990s. In addition, he's a producer on the film Wonderland, starring Mark Wahlberg as a convicted felon from Boston who investigates a deadly criminal conspiracy. He's also helping produce Good Joe Bell, a 2020 title about the struggles of an openly gay high school student in which Wahlberg will also star. 

Ballers was impacted by a shift in the industry

The idea of a movie star committing to a TV series used to be out of the ordinary — some might have even seen it as a step down. With so many well-written, big-budget TV shows being produced these days, crossing over into this medium has become normalized, but when Ballers was picked up, Johnson was one of the few big-name actors working on TV. "When they came to me with this idea for Ballers, at that time there were really no movie actors or movie stars really doing television," Johnson told said in his Instagram video, adding, "I really didn't want to concern myself with what was happening traditionally... I certainly wanted to disrupt."

But in today's TV landscape, Ballers doesn't stand out as particularly unique just because Johnson is starring. After all, you can catch Kevin Costner in Yellowstone, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in Maniac, and Amy Adams in the HBO adaptation of Sharp Objects, just to name a few. Having a film star in a leading role on a series is great, but it isn't the novelty that it once was. 

What's next for the Ballers cast?

What's next for the stars of the show after Ballers airs its series finale? In addition to Johnson's many acting and producing commitments, he recently married his longtime girlfriend Lauren Hashian in a private ceremony in Hawaii. The couple will undoubtedly be enjoying some extra time with their daughters, Jasmine and Tiana.  

Meanwhile, John David Washington moved on to the films Tenet and Born to be Murdered. You'll be able to watch both in 2020. And if you find yourself missing the onscreen chemistry of the Ballers cast, Omar Benson Miller and Rob Corddry reunited on the CBS family comedy series The Unicorn, which follows a widower who tries to balance raising his two daughters as a single dad while navigating the world of modern dating. Ballers has moved off the playing field, but don't worry about this talented cast and crew — they're clearly keeping busy.