The end of the summer is a slow time for professional sports. Pennant races are heating up in Major League Baseball, but there’s not much going on with the other major sports. The NFL is still weeks away from kickoff of the regular season, the NBA doesn’t start until the weather turns a bit chilly, and the first NHL puck isn’t dropped until around the same time. So what’s a sports fan to do when most major sports are still in the offseason? We suggest catching up on some of the best sports documentaries ever, especially if you’ve already blown through all of the best sports movies of all time.
The ironic thing about sports documentaries is that the actual outcomes of the games often take a backseat to the stories of the players involved. Of course, the final scores matter, but not as much as the players, coaches, and fans involved in the outcome. As humans, we want the stories and not the box scores. We want to cheer for the underdog and watch in amazement as athletes perform at a level millions of people will never reach.
Just like every team can’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy and not every golfer gets to slip on the green jacket, several great sports documentaries, unfortunately, didn’t make this list. That doesn’t mean they’re not notable films with riveting stories, but even in the game of list-making, some participants end up losing.
The original plan for the 1994 sports documentary Hoop Dreams was a 30-minute short film for PBS. Five years and over 250 hours of footage later and the result was a near three-hour film that won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.
This groundbreaking sports doc follows two Black high school students from Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, on their quests to become stars in the NBA.
Spoiler alert: Neither Gates nor Agee made an NBA roster, but Hoop Dreams is still fascinating to watch. The personal stories of each athlete are still captivating. The time the film was shot harkens back to an era when teens like Gates and Agee didn’t walk around with cameras in their pockets. The stars of Hoop Dreams are just themselves and not portraying an athlete just “doing it for the ‘Gram.”
Director: Steve James
Runtime: 170 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.3
Despite numerous complaints of abuse filed against him by former athletes and coaches, osteopathic physician Larry Nasser remained with USA Gymnastics for almost two decades. After his conviction in 2017 and sentence to serve 60 years in prison, more than 260 young women came forward about past sexual assault at the hands of the man hired to keep them healthy and safe.
A tough watch for any former athlete or parent of an athlete, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk interview survivors in Athlete A while talking to reporters from the Indianapolis newspaper that exposed the internal cover-ups within the American gymnastics system that allowed Nasser to go unpunished for more than 18 years.
Director: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Runtime: 103 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.6
There likely will never be an athlete like Muhammed Ali. When We Were Kings puts the world champion boxer, humanitarian, and human lightning rod for controversy on display at his absolute peak.
When We Were Kings is a documentary about the 1974 heavyweight boxing match held in Zaire, dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The reigning heavyweight champion, George Foreman, took on challenges of his own and an unlikely underdog, Ali, who at 32 was considered washed up. Boxing insiders thought Ali had no chance to defeat Foreman, who was 10 years younger than Ali and in the prime of his career. Rising boxing promoter Don King paid each man $5 million to take the fight. The film covers the events leading up to the legendary bout and the music festival held in conjunction with the main event.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 1996. Ali and Foreman, who had long before put aside their differences and had become friends, took the stage to accept the award along with the filmmakers.
Director: Leon Gast
Runtime: 88 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.0
Long before eSports became a lucrative endeavor and colleges offered courses in competitive, organized gaming, video game fans did battle over high scores on classic arcade games worldwide.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters follows the story of Steve Wiebe, an unemployed teacher from Washington, on a quest to beat a Donkey Kong high score that’s stood for more than 25 years. After using his mathematical background to identify exploitable patterns in the classic arcade game, Wiebe finally breaks the high score in 2003 and sends the proof to a company dedicated to tracking high scores in arcade games. The story that unfolds throughout the documentary involves circuit-board tampering, a decade-long feud between players, and the eventual face-off between Donkey Kong record holders for the top spot on the high score list.
While not a sports documentary in the traditional sense, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an entertaining and humorous look at the characters involved in the world of competitive gaming. It highlights the lows to which people will sink to be No. 1 and the never-ending love of nostalgia and the games of our youth.
Director: Seth Gordan
Runtime: 79 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.1
Murderball is a sports documentary that not only exposed the audience to a sport few knew existed but revealed the competition that occurs even among athletes with obvious physical limitations.
Murderball follows the journey of the U.S. quad rugby team on their way to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. The documentary covers topics far beyond sports. The athletes discuss training, competition, life away from the sport, relationships, and the unfortunate events that forever confined them to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.
Murderball will cause athletes of all skill levels to question the intensity of their training while instilling gratitude for the ability to do things such as walking and running that many people take for granted.
Director: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Runtime: 88 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.7
The best way to describe The Battered Bastards of Baseball — and the true story of the Portland Mavericks — is to envision the Bad News Bears all grown up.
The idea of veteran actor Bing Russell, father of Kurt, The Battered Bastards of Baseball recounts the conception of the first independent baseball team in America back in 1973. Labeled a “failure waiting to happen,” Russell made the organization an unabashed success. The Mavericks broke attendance records while playing in middle-of-nowhere Portland by attracting players from across the country looking for one last chance to play organized baseball.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is the perfect sports documentary to remind fans why we fall in love with sports and the lengths people will go to keep the the dream of playing alive, no matter the cost.
Director: Chapman Way, Maclain Way
Runtime: 80 minutes
IMDB Rating: 8.0
Warning: This film will cause heart palpitations, extreme sweating, and nervousness while quietly bringing on the urge to try mountain climbing.
Free Solo might not inspire people to attempt free soloing — a style of climbing done without a rope or harness — but the Alex Honnold’s climb with the majestic views in the backdrop will make anyone plan to visit the nearest mountain.
Free Solo documents Honnold’s life and his attempt to become the first person to ever free solo climb El Capitan, the 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park. One of the fascinating subplots of Free Solo involves filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi being utterly transparent about Honnold not attempting the climb. Both directors express an obligation to document either the triumph or tragedy of the attempt. Still, it’s rare to watch a documentary where the directors openly hope the star of their film doesn’t try to go for his goal.
Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Runtime: 100 minutes
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Long before the Vice series Dark Side of the Ring exposed some of the more unscrupulous and tragic tales in professional wrestling, Beyond The Mat was the first to pull back the curtain on the business. The documentary tells the real-life stories of some of the sport’s biggest stars.
Released during the height of the wrestling boom in the late 1990s, Beyond The Mat focuses on the lives of professional wrestlers Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Darren Drozdov, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. While smart fans have long known the action in the ring is scripted, Beyond The Mat shed light on the toll that years of performing takes on the body and mind. The film shows the performers at their rawest, like a crack-addicted Roberts (clean now for more than 10 years), a 53-year-old Funk refusing to hang up the boots, and a former NFL player, Drozdov, paralyzed due to a botched move.
Beyond The Mat provides a riveting inside look at real consequences to the “fake” action in the ring and makes for an entertaining film, even for viewers uneducated or uninterested in the world of professional wrestling.
Director: Barry W. Blaustein
Runtime: 102 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.6
The sports world is fascinated with phenoms and “the next” great athlete. Who is the next Kobe? Who will emerge as the next Tom Brady? Typically, these cumbersome labels get stuck to athletes at the high school and collegiate levels. But, as The Short Game proves, even competitors as young as 7 feel the pressure to be the next big thing.
The Short Game chronicles the journey of pint-sized pin seekers from around the world as they descend on the world-famous Pinehurst golf course in North Carolina to play in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. The documentary highlights eight competitors vying for the crown and interviews the golf prodigies and their families in the six months leading up to the tournament. The film also includes interviews with golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, and Annika Sorenstam about the pressure of being a professional golfer.
Los Angeles Times critic Annlee Ellingson described the film as a “warts-and-all depiction of youth golfers.” Parents of burgeoning athletes likely will recognize themselves and their kids in some of the players in The Short Game that sacrifice everything on the quest to be the next big thing.
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Runtime: 99 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.3
George Bradley recorded the first official no-hitter recognized by Major League Baseball back in 1876. Since then, 312 no-hitters have been thrown by big-league pitchers. But perhaps none are as memorable as the 1970 “no-no” tossed by Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The man on the mound, a former All-Star, didn’t remember much from that performance. He admitted to being high on LSD during the game after a night of partying and getting his start days mixed up.
No No: A Dockumentary revisits his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres and covers the right-hander’s prolific career, his outspokenness for Black players’ rights in the Major Leagues, and his addictions to booze and amphetamines. The film chronicles Ellis’ efforts to help other addicts get clean — right up to his death at age 63 in 2008.
Director: Jeff Radice
Runtime: 100 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.2
An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, Undefeated follows the Manassas Tigers and coach Bill Courtney in inner-city Memphis. Courtney is a volunteer coach trying to put a winning team on the field while keeping his players off the streets and out of trouble. Courtney leads the team to their first winning season in years after being a perennial punching bag for other football programs in the state.
“Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character,” Courtney reminds his players during one scene, a line that feels like an outtake from Friday Night Lights but is delivered with passion and intensity.
Undefeated will move viewers to tears during more than a few scenes. It’s easy to forget that Courtney is a business owner in town, acting as coach and mentor out of the kindness of his heart and not for a weekly paycheck.
Director: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Runtime: 113 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.7
Team Foxcatcher is the sports documentary that proves money and influence can lead to unimaginable access to young athletes looking for a helping hand — and that power ultimately corrupts.
John du Pont, the heir to the du Pont family fortune, was a published ornithologist and philatelist who fell in love with the sport of wrestling at a young age. Not being much of an athlete, DuPont used his money and influence to build a world-class training facility on the grounds of his farm in Pennsylvania. Renamed Foxcatcher Farm after his late mother, DuPont attracted young athletes all over the country due to the facility and his relationship with Dave Schultz, a former Olympic gold medalist training for a comeback. After an altercation with Schultz, du Pont shot and killed the Olympian and was later convicted and sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison for the murder.
Team Foxcatcher utilizes news clips, home videos, and interviews with Schultz’s wife and former members of Foxcatcher to recall the events leading up to Schultz’s murder. The film recounts du Pont’s downward spiral after the death of his mother, devolving from a well-off philanthropist into an erratic and paranoid murderer.
Director: Jon Greenhalg
Runtime: 90 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.3
While compiling this list of the best sports documentaries ever, we stuck to mostly films and not documentary series. Though we’ve included fantastic documentary series such as The Last Dance and other installments of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series here.
ESPN’s newest documentary series, The Last Dance, takes a thorough look at the Chicago Bulls heyday through never-before-seen footage of the team’s final championship-winning season in 1997-1998. The 10-part series is already gathering critical acclaim as it revisits the career of one of the world’s greatest athletes, Michael Jordan. It’s the rawest you’ll ever see Jordan, who keeps a cigar and a neat pour of Cincoro tequila by his tableside as he relives the years that made him internationally known as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in the world of basketball.
Director: Jason Hehir
Runtime: 8 hours 11 minutes
IMDB Rating: 9.1
ESPN’s 30 for 30 isn’t a single documentary, but rather a series of some of the best sports documentaries ever made. Here, you will find documentaries — 157 of them and counting — that highlight interesting, profound, and untold details and backstories in sports history. Some of our favorites include:
- The U: This is arguably one of ESPN’s best 30 for 30 episodes, diving into what went down at the University of Miami between 1983 and 1991. As racial and cultural tensions overwhelmed the city of Miami, the University of Miami’s football team ushered in a new era of recruiting, swagger, and “bad boy” success on one of the country’s biggest stages.
- Survive and Advance: This documentary takes an in-depth look at the late Jim Valvano, commonly known as Jimmy V, as he led the North Carolina State Wolfpack basketball team through a nine overtime, one-point games in 1983. It’s a story that shares how one of the biggest underdogs overcame all odds en route to one of the unlikeliest victories of all time, the 1983 Division 1 Men’s Basketball championship.
- The Two Escobars: The Two Escobars revisits an undisclosed marriage of crime and sport, shedding light on the rise of the Colombian national soccer team and its intersection with the country’s drug cartel-fueled murders of the time. The connecting point? Colombia’s captain, Andrés Escobar, and his brother, the infamous cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. This documentary investigates the astounding connections between the two men, their murders, and their impact on Colombia.
Runtime: 1hr episodes
IMDB Rating: 8.8
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