If you think about it, watching a football game or a boxing match, or any kind of sport is just enjoying another form of storytelling. That’s very evident when you watch a really good sports documentary. There are characters to either root for or against, and a narrative that can combine action, drama, horror, or humor. As video streaming services have expanded, so has the reach of these kinds of films and TV shows that go behind the scenes of these stories. But what are the best sports documentaries, and where can you stream them?
In this article, we will attempt to pick some of the best sports documentaries on streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, and many more. As you will see, the best of these kinds of films and TV series rival the best-scripted shows for drama. One thing we will mention is that most of the sports documentaries on Hulu are available on Disney Plus
Best sports documentaries
Best sports documentaries on Netflix
The Last Dance
This 10-part series won the 2020 Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, and it’s easy to see why. The series, co-produced by Netflix and ESPN, follows the life of Michael Jordan, who many believe is the best basketball player ever, and one of the greatest athletes of all time. While this documentary follows Jordan’s early high school and college careers, it really comes into shape when it goes into his time playing in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s and 1990s.
The series doesn’t pull too many punches when it comes to showing Jordan’s failings as a person and as an athlete, including his failed attempt to quit basketball for a pro baseball career. However, it does show his perseverance and dedication to winning on the basketball court, as he returns to the Bulls and has one “last dance” to help them get an NBA championship in the 1997–98 NBA season. It’s truly one of the best sports documentaries of all time.
Netflix is still the leading premium streaming service, with over 200 million worldwide subscribers. It offers thousands of movies and TV shows to binge watch, including its always growing list of original films and series, including Stranger Things, The Witcher, Bridgerton, and many more.
Formula 1: Drive to Survive
This behind-the-scenes look at Formula 1 racing is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. Each season of episodes covers a season of the Formula 1 world racing tour. The action-packed photography of the races is matched only by the behind-the-scenes looks at the drivers and teams of each season. The success of the show in the US has also caused a massive boost in Formula 1’s popularity in this country and may have been a factor in Formula 1 adding two more US-based races to the tour (Miami in 2022 and Las Vegas in 2023).
If you love scripted movies like Remember The Titans and Friday Night Lights, both of which were about high school football, you should love this documentary on Netflix. It features an inner-city team of school kids in Memphis, the Manassas Tigers, who are trying their best to have their first winning season in several years. The bond that this team has with their coach and each other can be felt from well outside the TV as you watch this. That’s maybe why this film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film in 2011 and is one of the best sports documentaries.
Best sports documentaries on Disney Plus
Not to be confused with the Disney Plus teen sports drama Big Shot, this 2013 documentary, originally shown on ESPN, starts in the mid-1990s. The New York Islanders, one of the most popular hockey teams in the NHL, were facing some hard financial challenges. Then a man named John Spano comes in, claiming he has the money to purchase the team and get things back up to speed. It sounded too good to be true, and in the end, it was. After agreeing to purchase the team in 1996 and making tons of promises, Spano was discovered to be a total liar about his net worth. The result was one of the biggest scams in professional sports history. This documentary is the only place where you can see Spano himself talk about what he did in this very engaging film.
Disney Plus offers thousands of TV episodes and movies from across the Disney library, including its Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel shows and films, along with exclusive TV series and movies.
Here’s another ESPN sports documentary that you can check out on Disney Plus. It takes a look at the life of Lance Armstrong. At one time, he was acclaimed as the greatest cyclist in the world, winning a total of seven Tour de France titles. He even beat a devastating battle with testicular cancer. However, all that came crashing down when he was found to be taking performance-enhancing drugs. He first denied it, then finally admitted to the truth, at least partially, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013.
This two-part, four-hour documentary includes direct interviews with Armstrong, as well as his family, friends, and cycling pros. We learn that Armstrong’s drive to win at any cost was caused in part by his upbringing, where his step-father would whip him and verbally abuse him. It’s not a pretty documentary, and Armstrong seems to have issues with telling the whole truth even now. But it is fascinating to watch and definitely one of the best sports documentaries.
There are certainly different kinds of athletic achievement. One of them is scaling mountains alone, with no ropes. That’s the subject of this National Geographic film that you can watch on Disney Plus. You can see the preparations and the ascent of free climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to be the first to climb the nearly 3,200-foot sheer rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any protective gear. Not only is his journey incredible on its own, but the photography of his ascent is also mind-blowing. Like other documentaries on this list, this one won the Oscar for Best Documentary, this time in 2018.
Best sports documentaries on HBO Max
This may be one of the most acclaimed sports documentaries that, for some reason, didn’t even get nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. The 1994 film chronicles the lives of two young African American boys. Both want to be professional basketball players but have many personal challenges. They get recruited by a predominantly white high school in a suburb of Chicago to see if they have the potential to go pro. The movie shows that these two players have lots of talent, but talent alone won’t get them noticed by college sports recruiters, much less the NBA.
HBO Max is your home for Warner Bros-made movies and TV shows like The Lord of the Rings, the DC Comics superheroes, and more. It’s also the home for new and original movies and shows available nowhere else.
What’s My Name: Muhammed Ali
This 2019 two-part documentary on HBO Max is perhaps the best one chronicling the life of one of the most famous and inspiring people of all time, in sports or otherwise. It’s directed by Antoine Fuqua, who normally directs scripted movies like Training Day and The Equalizer film series. He uses Ali’s own words, gathered from tons of different interviews, to serve as the narration for the documentary.
It starts during Ali’s younger boxing days when he was known as Cassius Clay, as he became a rising boxer. In the 1960s, he refused to enter the draft to fight in the Vietnam War and went to prison for it. He also changed his name to embrace the religion of Islam. Eventually, he gets out of jail, and, more importantly, the public embraces his chosen name. That’s when the legend of Ali really begins, both in the ring and also outside of it as a fighter for equal rights.
The Fastest Woman on Earth
Here’s a more recent HBO Max sports documentary. It focuses on Jessi Combs, who many only knew as a host for TV cable car shows like Overhaulin’ and All Girls Garage. However, she had ambitions well beyond being a television personality. A gearhead starting from a young age. Combs decided to embark on a quest to become the driver of the fastest car in a record land-speed vehicle. While she started setting land speed records for a woman driver starting in 2013, her overall goal was to be the fastest car driver, period. The documentary shows her efforts to make that happen, which tragically ended in 2019 when she died in a land-speed vehicle run.
Best sports documentaries on Amazon Prime Video/Freevee
Top Class: The Life and Times of the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers
This documentary series, which can be watched for free via Amazon Freevee, takes a look at a very special school in Southern California. The Sierra Canyon High School has an acclaimed boys’ basketball program, the Trailblazers. Every year for some time, this team has been on the hunt for a national high school basketball championship. Each of the three seasons of this show chronicles one season of the Trailblazers’ quest for excellence on the court and through both victory and defeat.
When you imagine being a professional football player in the NFL, you might think that those players have it made, even after they retire from the sport. This eight-part series on Amazon Prime Video shows that may not actually be true. It chronicles 12 ex-NFL players as each tries to get through life after football. They have to fight through the injuries they experienced on the field while at the same time trying to restart their life and careers through various jobs, from fishing to baking and even rodeo riding.
All or Nothing
This series chronicles the journey of one specific professional team during one season. You can go behind the scenes of several NFL teams like the Carolina Panthers or the Philadelphia Eagles. There are also seasons devoted to following soccer teams like Manchester and Arsenal, along with the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL hockey team and even college football with the Michigan Wolverines.
Best sports documentaries on ESPN Plus
OJ: Made in America
Here’s another Oscar winner for Best Documentary, this time in 2016. Originally released as a five-part series on ESPN, it looks at the life of O. J. Simpson. He was one of the best running backs in the NFL in the 1970s, and after he retired from football, he reinvented himself as an actor and commercial spokesperson. However, his life took a turn in the 1990s when he was accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. While he was acquitted of both murders in a highly publicized trial, he was arrested and did go to jail for nine years for a robbery in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2007.
The documentary uses O.J. Simpson’s life to also explore the racial issues and tensions in Los Angeles, where the murders were committed, and how the poor relationships between the LAPD and the African American community might be related to the events that happen at Simpson’s murder trial. You can watch the entire documentary on ESPN Plus.
This seven-part ESPN Plus documentary series is all about one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Derek Jeter’s life and career get a ton of coverage here. He’s one of the few players who stayed with one team, the New York Yankees, through his entire MLB career. He was also the captain of the team for most of that time, and the series shows how he rose from a kid playing the game to becoming one of the most well-known professional athletes ever. Jeter sat down for extensive interviews for the series, which also features chats with his fellow players, coaches, and others.
Ric Flair was one of the first pro wrestlers who broke out from the normal fan circles and became a nationally known figure. This ESPN Plus documentary takes a look at the life of the “Nature Boy” who not only won in the ring but also had fans outside of it, thanks to his flamboyant outfits and, more importantly, his trademark “trash talk” style, with tons of different catchphrases, including “Stylin’ and profiling’” “To be the man, you have to beat the man,” and, of course, his “Woooo” phrases that have become part of pop culture. The documentary also deals with many of Flair’s challenges, including health scares and the tragic death of his son.
More sports documentaries to check out
There are tons of other sports documentaries to stream on other services. Here are a few more you might be interested in:
- Texas 6 — Paramount Plus has a two-season documentary series about an unusual high school football team. The high school in the town of Strawn, Texas, is too small to have a full 11-member football squad, so instead, the team, the Greyhounds, fields a six-man team and plays against other small Texas school teams with the same player limits.
- Super Greed: The Fight For Football — Peacock has a documentary on the European Super League. This attempt by the richest soccer teams in the world to break off from their previous leagues and form this new organization in April 2021 was immediately scorned by soccer fans worldwide. The documentary shows how this league quickly collapsed in a matter of days thanks to massive fan protests.
- The Man Who Skied Down Everest — Peacock also has another Oscar Best Documentary winner in this 1976 film. It chronicles the quest of one man in 1970 to climb to the top of the tallest mountain on the planet and then ski all the way down.
- The Long Game: More Than Basketball — Apple TV Plus has a five-part series about Makur Maker, a highly talented high school basketball player. However, instead of going to the NBA directly from high school, he decided to attend the predominately black college Howard University.
- They Call Me Magic — Here’s another Apple TV Plus docuseries about basketball. It’s about Magic Johnson, the skilled and popular LA Lakers player who had to retire early due to contracting the HIV virus.