Stay Tuned: A-Rod scores with ‘Back in the Game’

In the TV tradition of not reinventing the wheel, CNBC has turned to sports for its latest reality TV series, “Back in the Game,” which takes “The Profit” and applies its financial lessons to struggling retired athletes. The formula is familiar, but host Alex Rodriguez makes it appealing.

Rodriguez’s job is to help professional athletes regain their financial stability and the self-esteem many of them lost when their seemingly endless fortunes turned into piles of debt. His experience of rising from a doping scandal to reclaim his reputation and career in Major League Baseball gives him a natural empathy with fellow athletes who feel that their economic pressures are insurmountable. It also gives A-Rod a pass on some of the more cliché moments. Most of these happen when he plays amateur therapist to motivate his clients, as he does in the pilot episode when he screens old game footage to help former NBA player Joe Smith “reconnect to that lion — that world class athlete.”

Whether or not the footage motivates Smith to emotionally move past the fact that he now has $3,000 in the bank after a career that netted him $18 million, is unclear. But what is clear is that Rodriguez has a sound financial plan to get Smith back on track, if he commits to it.

This is where the formula kicks in: Rodriguez outlines the strategy, (in this case, a series of basketball camps and private lessons that Smith will teach) and lays out the numbers in simple terms. He projects freedom from debt in three years or less. Then Rodriguez leaves an enthusiastic Smith to it and everyone is optimistic. He returns a few weeks later to check-in on Smith’s progress only to discover that the former star player is basically missing in action. Cue the tough love and inspirational phrases. Smith recommits his efforts and newly energized, starts making solid profits. Rodriguez is proud. Smith is proud. Happy ending.

Even though the show follows the highs and lows of the saving-a-business reality series formula, “Back in the Game” has something “The Profit” and other shows like it, lack. It is kinder. Rodriguez has a sincere rapport with Smith so when Smith predictably fails somewhere around the 30-minute mark, the formula slips into the background and the story comes into focus.

And it’s a heartfelt one. Smith is at his breaking point. His long-suffering fiancé Kisha’s pleas are raw and honest. And Rodriguez, who spends time telling Smith the harsh reality of his situation, also remains steadfast in his genuine desire to help this once proud athlete regain both his financial and emotional health. A-Rod, who has appeared on “Shark Tank,” also gains something here as he builds his brand, but the broader goal shouldn’t be dismissed.

“Back in the Game” confronts a dark truth of professional sports, which is that 50 to 80 percent of athletes go broke five years after retirement. Helping them, even in the well-worn structure of a reality show that also happens to be solid PR for its host, is admirable.

“Back in the Game” is on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EDT on CNBC.

— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.

Share This Story