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The Biggest Sports Movies Of All Time

Sports movies are a special breed of cinema as they combine two things the general public loves: sports and films. Typically, these two forms of recreational entertainment are strictly divided. However, the sports movie genre allows audiences of all stripes to get entertained on multiple levels. Sports devotees can enjoy seeing familiar football, baseball, and boxing legends on the big screen, while people who don't know a hockey puck from a tennis racquet can still get immersed in a compelling narrative. Given just how enjoyable these features can be, it's a wonder that studios don't combine sports and movies more often. It's especially puzzling given how often sports movies end up becoming an exceptional box office hit.

Looking at the biggest sports movies of all time at the domestic box office, one notices several trends immediately, including just how prominent the "Rocky" franchise is in this domain. However, it also becomes apparent that all these titles are the sort of projects that get people to stand up in their seats and cheer, a unifying experience that can be downright exhilarating when it occurs in a movie theater. The various factors that inform the box office glory of the most lucrative sports movies remind the world that, like the underdog protagonists of many of these features, you can never count the sports movie out.

12. The Fighter

Some sports, like baseball or soccer, don't regularly score a lot of box office dollars in North America. Boxing, on the other hand, is a much more reliably lucrative sport to turn into cinema. You can chalk that up to "Rocky," that 1976 movie that proved so influential that any boxing movie afterward can't help but remind people of that Sylvester Stallone vehicle. However, you can also attribute it to how the violent nature of boxing makes the underdog qualities of the classic sports movie extra potent.

Part of this trend was "The Fighter," which was based on a true story and brought together a massively star-studded cast that featured Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. It didn't hurt that the film had a prime December release date that allowed it to play throughout the holiday season and arrived into multiplexes with lots of award season hype, especially around Bale's performance. This wasn't just another feel-good sports movie, as this feature was guaranteed to factor into the Oscars. Put all that together, and it's no wonder "The Fighter" made $93.6 million in North America, according to The Numbers. With this box office performance, "The Fighter" continued the winning streak of boxing in cinema.

11. 42

Jackie Robinson changed the world of baseball, and American sports in general, forever. His influence was so immense that it was inevitable the art of cinema would dramatize it. Efforts to do so even included the 1950 film "The Jackie Robinson Story," which featured Robinson as himself. A more traditional period piece biopic about Robinson would emerge decades later through the 2013 movie "42." In an interesting twist of fate, another legendary figure would also be intertwined in the project in the form of Chadwick Boseman.

Given the incredibly influential nature of Robinson, it was no surprise to anyone when "42" became a major box office hit when it hit theaters in April 2013. This was despite baseball movies regularly having a mixed track record when it came to the box office. However, the fame of Robinson, alongside the presence of Harrison Ford in a supporting role and a distinctive marketing campaign, made sure that "42" overcame those problems by grossing $95 million, per The Numbers. Plus, opening when it did in April 2013, with much less competition to face, proved to be a smart scheduling move. It was only a matter of time before Robinson had another movie made about him, though who knew it would prove to be such a lucrative enterprise.

10. Million Dollar Baby

The "Rocky" movies catapulted boxing to new heights at the box office, but they don't have a monopoly over producing boxing cinema that scores significant financial achievements. Case in point — Clint Eastwood's 2004 feature "Million Dollar Baby," which ended up making more in North America than the 2006 film "Rocky Balboa." While that would seem like an impossible feat for a non-sequel like "Million Dollar Baby," this Hilary Swank vehicle made it happen thanks to a perfect combination of a transfixing storyline, a killer release date, and an avalanche of award season buzz.

Clint Eastwood had already wrung box office success out of injecting a realistic aura into the Western with "Unforgiven." Taking a similarly unflinching approach to the boxing movie once again resulted in financial glory with "Million Dollar Baby." Data compiled by The Numbers shows that this 2004 title's box office haul was enhanced by a smartly-scheduled release plan that allowed it to expand into wide release in January 2005, right after it scored a slew of Academy Award nominations. Now a contender for major categories like best picture, "Million Dollar Baby" stuck around for weeks and grossed $100.4 million in North America. Among its many achievements, that makes "Million Dollar Baby" the most lucrative movie ever for Hilary Swank at the domestic box office and her only title in this region to exceed $100 million. It's also the only non-"Rocky" boxing movie to crack that box office threshold in this territory.

9. Creed

While the "Rocky" franchise wasn't necessarily at rock bottom when "Creed" arrived on the scene in 2015, it wasn't in sterling condition either. "Rocky 5" took the series to new critical lows in the 1990s and put the franchise into hibernation for more than a decade. "Rocky Balboa" in 2006 resorted some of the critical luster, per Rotten Tomatoes, but it didn't make nearly as much at the domestic box office as previous installments. Considering this track record, "Creed" couldn't just do okay for a sports drama. The pressure was on to revive the "Rocky" movies at the box office and bring the franchise back to its financial glory days.

A smart move made from the get-go was that "Creed" wouldn't just be a "Rocky" remake or even a simple rehash of the original "Rocky." It would be an inspirational boxing movie, but the titular character's plight in "Creed," coming to terms with his father's legacy and establishing his own personality, was vastly different from what Rocky Balboa faced in his first movie. Straddling the line between familiar triumphant thrills and offering something new, alongside a magnetic performance from Michael B. Jordan, helped "Creed" become a box office smash when it hit theaters in 2015. Grossing $109.7 million domestically, per The Numbers, it was the first "Rocky" movie to exceed $100 million in North America in 30 years. This feature had accomplished its job. The "Rocky" franchise, the crown jewel of sports dramas, was back on top.

8. Remember the Titans

Throughout the 2000s, Walt Disney Pictures went nuts with sports dramas and began releasing new entries in this genre on an annual basis. "Glory Road," "Invincible," and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" all dropped in movie theaters hoping to score cheers and dollars from moviegoers. The box office performances of these titles varied greatly, but none of them were as lucrative as the project that inspired Disney to go all-in on sports dramas, "Remember the Titans." A football film released in 2000 starring Denzel Washington, "Remember the Titans," grossed $115.7 million domestically, according to The Numbers, nearly four times its $30 million budget. No wonder Disney kept trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle again.

"Titans" benefited from several factors that no other sports drama had at its disposal. For one thing, the project was headlined by an actual A-list performer in the form of Denzel Washington. Though it was only Washington's second movie to crack $100 million in North America in 2000, he had still headlined multiple box office hits at this point and had even been nominated for acting categories at the Oscars on four separate occasions. Washington's presence alone gave "Remember the Titans" an extra bit of artistic credibility that you don't necessarily get with every sports drama, Disney, or otherwise. Positive reviews, as measured by Rotten Tomatoes, further helped "Remember the Titans" on its journey to becoming one of the biggest sports dramas in history.

7. Creed 2

Some Thanksgiving traditions just never seem to fade away. People will always eat Turkey over this holiday, and Lucy will constantly be plucking away that fateful football from Charlie Brown just before he can kick it. Also part of these traditions? A "Rocky" movie will open over this timeframe and make enormous amounts of money. Following in the footsteps of "Rocky 4" and the original "Creed," "Creed 2" was always going to open over the Thanksgiving time frame, and, also like so many of its predecessors, it proved to be a major box office smash.

With $115.7 million domestically, per The Numbers, "Creed 2" exceeded its predecessor's North American haul while surpassing the grosses of all but three entries in the "Rocky" franchise in this territory. The positive buzz spurred on by the inaugural "Creed" installment no doubt played a part in getting "Creed 2" to reach such impressive box office heights. It didn't hurt that, in the years since "Creed" in 2015, lead actors Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson had massively increased their star power by headlining movies like "Black Panther" and "Thor: Ragnarok," respectively. With the sports movie "Creed 2" becoming a smash hit, the streak of "Rocky" movies excelling over Thanksgiving continued unabated.

6. Rocky

It's hard to imagine now, but there was once a sports movie landscape without "Rocky." In the early 1970s, this franchise had never graced movie theaters, and Sylvester Stallone was a largely unknown performer. All of that would change when the original "Rocky" hit movie theaters in 1976. While later "Rocky" movies would garner much of their box office prowess from leaning on a famous brand name, this kick-off entry in the saga had to create financial glory from scratch.

On just a $1 million budget, "Rocky" grossed an extraordinary $117.2 million in North America alone, per The Numbers. This unique and profoundly human take on a sports underdog story touched a nerve with the general public, who couldn't get enough of this guy's exploits. The impressiveness of its box office haul is cemented when comparing it to other 1976 movies. Not only did "Rocky" exceed all other features released that year domestically, but it was also the only motion picture to crack $100 million in this territory. Even more impressively, it's the fifth-biggest movie Sylvester Stallone has ever appeared in his decades of existing as a prominent silver screen presence. With these impressive achievements and an astonishing level of profitability under its belt, it's no wonder "Rocky" ended up overhauling the sports drama genre forever.

5. Ford v Ferrari

Cars going fast. From the moment automobiles were first invented, the excitement of taking them to high speeds has always proved an entertaining sight that's hard to replicate. No wonder, then, that movies have so often used automobile racing as a go-to backdrop for sports stories. One especially lucrative example of this strain of sports cinema is "Ford v Ferrari," a James Mangold film released in November 2019. Though its central story isn't known by everyone, especially in America, it proved to be a mighty popular movie to domestic audiences.

"Ford v Ferrari" kicked off its domestic box office run in the victory circle with a $31.4 million opening weekend, per The Numbers. This title was able to stick around through Thanksgiving, riding a wave of good word-of-mouth and reaching $117.6 million in North America. Impressively, that makes "Ford v. Ferrari" the second-biggest movie ever about car racing that doesn't involve either Vin Diesel or Lightning McQueen, per Box Office Mojo. Similarly noteworthy is how this is the rare non-"Batman" movie starring Christian Bale to exceed $100 million in this territory and one of Matt Damon's bigger films outside of the "Bourne" franchise. No matter how you look at it, "Ford v Ferrari" zoomed to remarkable success.

4. Seabiscuit

Not every superhero movie lead can be counted on to be a reliable box office draw. Just ask Hugh Jackman, whose "X-Men" successes have been balanced out by box office duds like "Australia" and "The Front Runner," per The Numbers. However, sometimes one of these films proves so successful that it turns their lead performer into just enough of a box office draw, at least temporarily. So it was with Tobey Maguire, who, after headlining the box office record-shattering "Spider-Man" in 2002, was on everybody's radar. Unless something went drastically wrong, his follow-up project to that blockbuster couldn't help but be a hit.

That production would turn out to be "Seabiscuit," an underdog horse-racing story that grossed $120 million domestically. That's one of the biggest box office sums ever for a sports drama that doesn't belong to the "Rocky" franchise. Having Maguire directly after his work in "Spider-Man" certainly helped give "Seabiscuit" a box office boost, but let's not discount the appeal of its titular subject. Mention horse racing to anyone and the first thing they'll think of is the horse Seabiscuit. Putting such an iconic figure on the big screen was inevitably going to draw a lot of eyeballs. In this case, it drew enough of them to become one of the most successful sports films of all time.

3. Rocky 3

After "Rocky 2" failed to put up the same numbers as the original did in North America, it wasn't far-fetched to wonder if the "Rocky" movies just weren't going to make it as a long-running franchise. Of course, history has shown that the "Rocky" movies have proven as unstoppable as their titular boxer, and much of that financial longevity can be laid on the success of "Rocky 3." This film managed to top all prior "Rocky" installments and reinvigorated the financial stamina of the franchise in the process.

While many installments in the "Rocky" franchise have opted for Thanksgiving or Christmas launches, "Rocky 3" took a cue from its predecessor's June bow by debuting over Memorial Day weekend in 1982, per The Numbers. Going for a summertime debut turned out to be a bold move that paid off handsomely, as "Rocky 3" took in $125 million domestically. That was enough to make the biggest movie of the year in North America that wasn't called "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." What helped this film out at the box office was its positive word-of-mouth from audiences, as reflected the project's A+ CinemaScore grade from moviegoers, which Film School Rejects notes is a fairly rare occurrence and one that is often a solid predictor of financial success. With this kind of buzz and a prime summertime release date, it's no wonder "Rocky 3" proved that the "Rocky" films could go on well beyond the inaugural installment.

2. Rocky 4

The box office apex of the "Rocky" franchise in North America came in 1985 with "Rocky 4," which, in retrospect, isn't a surprise. This title was released during the height of mania around Sylvester Stallone's star power (fueled by the incredible box office run of "Rambo: First Blood Part Two" that summer) and tapped into anti-Russian sentiment during the Cold War to define Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago antagonist. Plus, "Rocky 3" was a well-liked box office smash, meaning "Rocky 4" didn't have to follow up a widely detested title and justify why the "Rocky" franchise was still around. 

Moviegoers didn't have to be told twice to line up around the block to see this motion picture as "Rocky 4" cracked $127.8 million domestically, per The Numbers. Just in terms of movies released that year, "Rocky 4" exceeded all but three movies that debuted in 1985. Not only is that bigger than any other "Rocky" installment (without taking inflation into account), it also made the project the biggest sports drama in North America for more than two decades. The perfect confluence of elements came together to inform the exceptional box office run of "Rocky 4," which could accurately be described as a total knockout.

1. The Blind Side

It's always interesting to look back on movies that don't just top all other films in a subgenre but vastly surpass all other entries in that category. There's being successful, and then there's being successful in an unprecedented way. What led to these titles shattering all the norms for what movies of their ilk could do? "The Blind Side" is one such exception, the biggest sports drama of all time with $255.9 million in North America, according to The Numbers. The film more than doubled the domestic gross of the second-highest-grossing entry in this subgenre. It's also the only sports drama to exceed $150, $200, and $250 million in North America.

None of these records could've been predicted before the movie launched in the pre-Thanksgiving slot in November 2009. Over its opening weekend, "The Blind Side" shattered expectations and continued to surprise people with tiny weekend-to-weekend drops. Part of what drew moviegoers to the theater to see "The Blind Side" was the positive word-of-mouth the motion picture developed, as well as the fact that it was based on a real-world sports figure, Michael Oher, who was already a household name. Attracting Oher's fanbase helped things out, as did putting Sandra Bullock in the movie. Her strong box office track record is a testament to how much of a draw she is, and rarely was that more apparent than in "The Blind Side," a sports drama with a box office performance like no other entry in this subgenre.