The Best Sports Documentaries of All Time

Now a tough task to narrow down the best in the genre, here's our take on a quarter-century’s worth of the best sports documentaries of all time.

best sports documentaries survive and advance
Image via Getty/Ronald C. Modra
best sports documentaries survive and advance

Since the 1897 flick The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight documented an entire boxing match for Victorian audiences to watch, sports docs have definitely come a long way. While the entire field owes a huge debt of gratitude to landmarks such as The Endless Summer, it was the father/son team of Ed and Steve Sabol that really elevated the genre. Their NFL Films, rich with grand paradigmatic music and the thunderous tones of announcer John Facenda, brought the sports documentary from bruising gridiron battlefield to a kind of fine art form, and no doubt had much to do with football’s ensuing explosion in popularity. With the advent of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, and even legitimate sports news programs like HBO Real Sports and 60 Minutes Sports, the very nature of sports and athletes as subject for serious examination, especially as documentary fodder, is thriving. That is not to say that there were not memorable documentaries prior to 30 For 30—there were, and many are included here—but the level of the form has been undeniably elevated, and the bar raised, making it a golden age for both sports fans and non-sports fans alike. And now, with the monumental, near 8-hour O.J.: Made in America capturing last year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, it’s official: The sports documentary has grown up.

As with all great films, the top sports documentaries both echo and comment on the social issues surrounding a sport, how the times affect the sport, and how the sport affects the times.  While it once was pretty easy to narrow down the best 25 in the genre, the task has become (thanks to the aforementioned) increasingly difficult. The following is a quarter-century’s worth of the best sports documentaries of all time.

The Fab Five (2011)

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The U (2009)

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Undefeated (2011)

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The Endless Summer (1966)

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I Hate Christian Laettner (2015)

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9 Innings to Ground Zero (2004)

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Murderball (2005)

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Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)

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Catching Hell (2011)

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The Two Escobars (2010)

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Survive and Advance (2013)

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Touching The Void (2001)

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Beyond the Mat (1999)

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Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

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Director: Stacy Peralta

If you ever wondered about the rise of skating, then avoid the heavily flawed Hollywood account, Lords of Dogtown, and peep the far more entertaining and informative doc about the Zephyr Skateboard team that spawned it.


No Crossover (2010)

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Freedom’s Fury (2006)

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One Day in September (1999)

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Straight Outta L.A. (2010)

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The Best That Never Was (2010)

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Director: Jonathan Hock

As fascinated as we are with the great athletes and their achievements—the Jim Browns, the Earl Campbells, etc.—we’re equally fascinated with those who either never got the opportunity or never quite lived up to the hype they engendered. Such is the case of Marcus Dupree, rated by many as the greatest running back they had ever seen. Director Jonathan Hock looks at the short and odd trajectory of Dupree’s career, from stellar freshman season under Barry Switzer at the University of Oklahoma, to dropping out of school and attempting to attend another college, to a short sojourn in the USFL, to finally an unlikely comeback and retribution. It follows the decisions he and those around him made that proved to be his ultimate undoing. Dupree is both a cautionary tale and a role model for any young athlete who finds himself as potentially the best that ever, or never, was.

Pumping Iron (1977)

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)

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When We Were Kings (1996)

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Baseball: A film by Ken Burns (1994)

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Hoop Dreams (1994)

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Director: Steve James

The gripping story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two inner-city basketball players trying to make it out of the hood in hopes of making it to the NBA, is as much about race, class, and education as it is about sports. Those qualities make this cinematic masterpiece not just the greatest sports doc, but also arguably one of the best documentaries of any kind in recent memory.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

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