My love for the niche genre that is sports documentaries holds no bounds. There is something so different about combining the cinematic element of filmmaking with the real-life excitement of sports that make for the best viewing experience. It has always been my favorite thing to watch, so as you can imagine, I have seen a lot of different movies and shows alike that fall within this category. Now, in the confusing age of a million streaming services, it can be so hard to find something good with all of the options out there. But don’t you worry, I’ve been out in the field. I’ve put the time in and now I am ready to present my list of the unequivocal sports documentaries and docuseries.
“Last Chance U” (Netflix)
This is one of the first sports shows that I got really invested in and started binge watching when it first premiered in 2016. This show follows the world of junior college football, which is something that I didn’t know even existed before watching. The show follows one team for two seasons and focuses on their players and their successes and failures throughout their season. High performance junior college football faces amazingly high stakes because for many of the players it is their ticket into a Division I program, whether due to academic or financial circumstances. This leads to a great feeling of anticipation and energy throughout the series. The show focuses on the person-to-person aspect of storytelling in a way that makes you feel incredibly connected to the players and coaches featured by the end of the show. This show got super popular on Netflix. In fact it became so popular that they created a spin-off show called “Last Chance U: Basketball” that premiered in early 2021.
“Athlete A” (Netflix)
Some of the best sports documentaries focus not just on winning championships or the actual playing of a sport, but instead bring attention to major issues in the sports world. This film centers around the USA Gymnastics scandal involving Larry Nasser and his sexual abuse of athletes for over 20 years. This abuse went on despite there being multitudes of complaints filed by the athletes and their families, which is one of the major themes of the film. The documentary uses interviews with athletes and reporters at the Indianapolis Star newspaper who originally broke the story. This film stresses the need for institutional change. Even though this is a non-traditional documentary, it shows sports in a different light and allows the viewer a deeper view into a story that dominated headlines.
“Free Solo” (Disney+)
This is not a documentary for the faint of heart. The film follows Alex Honnold, a “free solo” rock climber, which means he literally climbs mountains with no ropes. It is exactly as crazy as it sounds, and this film had me gripping the edge of my seat. It follows Alex’s journey to become the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The filmmakers are honest throughout the documentary about having mixed feelings for filming his attempt because of their genuine worries about Honnold’s safety, making it all even more trepidation-filled to watch. I love this film because it gives a great deal of perspective to a sport that is not as well-known by the average sporting fan. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
“100 Foot Wave” (HBO Max)
Speaking of sports that don’t get enough recognition, the HBO documentary series “100 Foot Wave” focuses on the journey of surfer Garrett McNamara, along with his manager and wife Nicole, and their conquest to surf a 100 foot wave. The duo’s search led them to Nazare, Portugal in search of big wave surfing, and in turn they made it into one of the premiere surfing destinations in the world. It focuses on several years and builds a rich and amazing story that you can’t look away from. This show gives amazing insight into the world of surfing and what it looks like to be the best. And if you watch it now, you are in luck because HBO just renewed it for a new season!
“F1: Drive to Survive” (Netflix)
If you have spoken to me in the last six months, you have heard me talk about my newfound obsession with Formula 1 racing, and it is all because of how much I love this show! This show follows a more typical character-led reality format than some of the other documentaries on this list, but to me it brings together everything I love about sports. The show follows an entire season of Formula 1 driving (each season of the show is one year of the racing season), and focuses on a different driver each episode. There are only 20 drivers in the entirety of the sport, so they have to be the best of the best, and unlike other sports, there is no “contract season”. Drivers can get dropped from their teams and replaced at any moment throughout the season. If this doesn’t spell amazing drama to you, I don’t know what will. This show also has three whole seasons with 10 episodes each out right now, so it is incredibly easy to binge watch and then feel as though you could 100 percent win the world championship for Mercedes this year yourself.
“The Last Dance” (ESPN and Netflix)
This documentary, following the career of Michael Jordan, needs no more press from me but I have to include it on the list. Go watch it, it is amazing!
This list is in no way extensive and there are definitely so many that I missed, but these are just my favorites. Whether you are an avid sports fan or someone who has never watched a game in your life, sports documentaries offer the ability to see deeper into a player, a game or an industry. Give one of these and try, and you just might find something new and amazing!
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