Suits has been setting streaming records for Netflix since it dropped earlier this summer, four years after the legal drama ended its nine-season run on USA Network. Could HBO’s Ballers, the sports series that starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, follow suit?
The half-hour premium cable series, which featured an ensemble cast including Rob Corddry and John David Washington and is one of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s favorite shows, is currently streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max) and recently also launched on Netflix. It was Baller’s Netflix debut on Aug. 15 that skyrocketed the show into the streaming service’s global top 10 lists, where it has remained in its first two weeks on the platform.
There’s evidence Ballers could follow Suits as the next surprise Netflix hit. Between Aug. 14 and Aug. 20, the week the show first arrived on Netflix, audiences watched an astounding 696 million total minutes, according to metrics tracker TV Grim Reaper — a massive increase of 400 times more viewing minutes compared to the previous week when only 1.7 million minutes were consumed while it was streaming on Max.
What is Ballers about?
Created by Stephen Levinson and executive-produced by Johnson and Mark Wahlberg, Ballers was a scripted series that lifted the curtain on sports culture and flashy lifestyles. The comedic drama ran for 47 episodes over five seasons on HBO from 2015 to 2019. It revolved around retired Miami Dolphins football star Spencer Strasmore (played by Johnson, who was a player on the 1991 University of Miami national championship team) as he begins a new chapter of his life giving financial advice to professional athletes and other high-profile clients, even though he barely has $200 to his name. The show chronicles the ups and downs as he deals with demanding personalities and enormous egos, while often going toe to toe with Joe Krutel (played by Corddry), his friend and fellow financial advisor, as they spar over lucrative signings, personal crises and million-dollar deals.
Washington, who like Johnson was a football player in a past life, played Ricky Jerret, a competitive and deeply spiritual NFL star, while Omar Miller portrayed Charles Greane, an ex-NFL player struggling to land on his feet. Donovan W. Carter, Troy Garity, London Brown, Jazmyn Simon, Arielle Kebbel and Brittany S. Hall rounded out the ensemble cast. During its run, notable guest stars like Dule Hill, Michael Cudlitz, Fox Sports personality Jay Glazer and real-life athletes such as Terrell Suggs stopped by for memorable appearances.
What did the critics think?
When Ballers premiered in 2015, critics were mixed on the series, though reviews tended to lean toward the positive. The Hollywood Reporter called it “Entourage for the football world” and commended Johnson, whom the outlet said was the show’s “main attraction,” for his “magnetic” performance. The New York Times was a bit harsher with its take, writing that there are far too many sports “cliches,” making it an “unrewarding, predictable drama.” The series has an overall 72% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while it received “generally favorable reviews” based on 35 critics’ takes on Metacritic. Ballers never attracted Game of Thrones numbers ratings-wise, but peaked in Season 3 with a small but healthy fanbase of just under 2 million viewers per episode before ending with a weekly average of half a million viewers two seasons later. Johnson announced the end of Ballers a few days before the fifth and final season premiered in August 2019 via an Instagram video.
Why are people suddenly watching Ballers?
Ballers is experiencing the magic of the so-called “Netflix bump” — where older shows get rediscovered and binged by the streamer’s audience. Timing could also be a factor: With Hollywood at a standstill due to striking writers and actors, there aren’t as many fresh series in circulation. Ballers was already readily available on Max, but through a new licensing deal between Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent company behind HBO, many popular titles from the premium cable network like Ballers, Insecure (made available July 3), Band of Brothers and Six Feet Under, are gradually finding their way onto Netflix, which has a broader viewership.
For the week of Aug. 14 to Aug. 20, Ballers Season 1 shot up to the No. 3 spot on Netflix’s global top 10 TV list, garnering 18.4 million hours viewed and earning 3.9 million views, according to the streaming platform. The week after, ending Aug. 27, the show retained the No. 7 spot, with audiences consuming a total of 10.5 million hours, translating to 2.2 million views. It is the first HBO series to make it into Netflix’s top 10 under the new licensing agreement.
The exponential return for Ballers is also a result of Netflix’s large subscriber base. Netflix had approximately 239 million paying subscribers worldwide as of the end of June, according to a quarterly report. Max had an estimated 83 million subscribers. That explains the disproportionate increase in viewing minutes for Ballers in its first week on Netflix when people watched 696 million minutes compared to just 1.7 million minutes when it was solely on Max the previous week. To put things into even clearer perspective, Ballers logged 892 million minutes when it was streaming on Max from May 30, 2022 to Aug. 13, 2023, according to TV Grim Reaper. It reached 77% of those viewing minutes on Netflix in just one week.
Netflix promoted the arrival of Ballers on Aug. 15 on X, formerly Twitter, and later offered a digestible CliffsNotes guide for those discovering it for the first time once it became apparent people were addictively binge-watching it. Clearly, it is paying off.
Is Ballers the next Suits phenomenon?
Potentially. Evidence suggests Ballers, on paper at least, has many of the ingredients that made Suits appealing in the first place. Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and a trustee professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University, tells Yahoo Entertainment there are three crucial elements to determining whether a show like Ballers has the necessary weight to be the next Netflix success story.
“The first thing would be [a show] no more than 10 years old or not having been off the air for more than 10 years — the idea that something has still got a contemporary feel to it. We still remember people talking about it, but we just didn’t see it.
“Secondly, if there are any other bonus elements that kept it in the national consciousness; Meghan Markle was a perfect example of that,” he explains. Johnson’s general star power certainly plays into that for Ballers.
“And then thirdly, it’s got to be a show that when people watch it, it’s a good enough show that they like it. Suits is an amusing, competent, fun-to-watch show; it’s suitable for binging. Ballers pretty much fits that nicely.”
There’s something to be said about audiences discovering (or rediscovering) older television on streaming. “Often they are not very intellectually challenging. There’s no spoilers to avoid. They don’t require a lot of thinking and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s why they’re so popular,” Jason Ruiz, professor of American studies and an expert on Netflix at the University of Notre Dame, tells Yahoo Entertainment.
To be the next Suits, Ruiz says Ballers — which has cut through the streaming clutter just by being on Netflix, a platform with “universal accessibility” — has to have “the right amount of vintage to be comforting and nostalgic.”
“Part of it is the easy package-ability, that easy accessibility, that comfort they provide when there’s no surprises. But you still want to watch something that is low-stakes viewing. To me watching Suits, watching Ballers is probably very low stakes,” he says, prognosticating that the renewed resurgence could also be a response to “prestige television” fatigue.
Thompson suggests audiences’ viewing habits have been evolving thanks in part to the Netflixes of the world: “We’re looking for what already is the existing property that will become a hit retroactively.” Ruiz agrees: “I think audiences should get used to rewatching being part of our viewing practices because it is not only of the moment and what people are talking about, but it’s also what these platforms are going to make available to us. Maybe the shows you remember or don’t even remember that well are going to find much bigger audiences than they ever have before.” Uncertainty surrounding the writers and actors strikes will amplify this need, the media scholar believes. “When we run out of new content to stream, that old content is going to look even more appealing.”
But J.D. Connor, associate professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California, thinks Ballers will have a much shorter shelf-life than Suits. “The fact that there are only 47 episodes of Ballers and there are three times as many episodes as Suits, means there are so many fewer minutes to watch that it will get burned out and probably dropped,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. By the same token, Thompson cautions that trying to “rationalize what Suits had that made this work” may be a fool’s errand, even though he believes Ballers could possibly replicate the legal drama’s surprising second life. “In the end, this is show business, not science. So there’s no way of actually predicting it.”
Ballers is currently streaming on Max and Netflix.