By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/31/2008 12:25:58 PM ET 2008-12-31T17:25:58

Just in time for the holidays, “The Wrestler” has appeared in movie theatres to stunningly good reviews. Mickey Rourke – who seemed to have peaked a generation ago in “Barfly” – has already been touted for an Oscar as Best Actor.

The film’s thumbs-up reception reminds one of the influence of sports movies over the decades. An expansion NHL team was named after ”The Mighty Ducks” film starring Emilio Estevez; "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," a tongue-in-cheek look at a NASCAR racer starring Will Ferrell, earned nearly $50 million one weekend at the box office, better than any other movie at that time in 2006.

In a number of instances, Hollywood has helped promote little-known or down-on-their-luck sports. Though “The Wrestler” is unlikely to give a jolt to the bizarre world of professional wrestling (which is just as scripted as Hollywood itself), women’s boxing received a lift when “Million Dollar Baby” entered the theaters.

Even though Laila Ali – Muhammad Ali's daughter had given women's boxing name recognition for years, the sport didn't capture the public's imagination until the movie came out. Before that, many dismissed female pugilists as inferior, and others said women shouldn't be fighting at all. But the Academy Award-winning film helped legitimize the sport with its powerful storyline and realistic action.

Which brings up the question: what sports or sports leagues would benefit most from a solid film in 2009? Which are in desperate need, and what others simply need a strong mainstream movie to break out on the national scene?

Desperate need

Arena Football League: Philadelphia Soul co-owner Jon Bon Jovi could sing the title track. A sandlot star with a heart of gold leads a woebegone franchise to the title game. His girlfriend crawls up the field goal net to cheer him on as he spurs the team to a winning touchdown in the championship. Will keep league relevant during lost 2009 season.

WNBA: Cher is hired to coach a downtrodden team, whips them into shape and is carried off the floor as the franchise wins the title. Likely to be more popular than the floundering league itself.

Men’s boxing: Few sports boast such a library of popular movies already. The “Rocky” series has enjoyed four sequels with a fifth scheduled, while ”Raging Bull” was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Redo the standard underdog formula to regain America’s interest in a sport that’s become a laughingstock.

Breakout potential

UFC: Chuck “Iceman” Liddell could play himself ­ as he did in an episode of HBO’s “Entourage.” Taking a page from the “Rocky” playbook, a young punk could fight Liddell for the mixed martial arts title, while squiring a quiet lass when he’s not in training. In the end, he could fall just short against the mighty Lidell, setting up a perfect sequel opportunity.

PBR: A young cowboy on the Montana plains is kicked by a bull and is bedridden for weeks. He dreams of taming the unrepentant beast and finally does as a champion professional bull rider.

Of course, there’s no guarantee a movie will boost a sport. Despite her beauty, Raquel Welch didn’t improve Roller Derby’s future in the 1972 film ”Kansas City Bomber.” And “Breaking Away,” immensely popular in 1979, didn¹t create a demand for a professional cycling circuit in the U.S. In fact, Lance Armstrong’s success in the Tour de France did more to popularize the
sport.

No discussion of sports movies is complete without mentioning “Caddyshack.” Hard to claim it helped the PGA Tour or recruited any new golfers, but there’s no doubt it generated must-say comments on the course (“So I got that going for me, which is nice”). It also made golf a little more hip.

So what will be the next great sports movie? Hard to say, but one thing’s certain: Will Ferrell won't be in it. After starring in "Talladega Nights," "Blades of Glory" and "Semi-Pro," he told USA Today, “I'm retired from sports-genre films. You know, I think I filled my quota.”

Too bad. The USC grad would have made a heckuva AFL quarterback.

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