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The Best Sports Documentaries to Watch With Kids

'The Last Dance' is ending. Here's what to watch next.

Lionsgate

One of the many effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was an overnight void in the sports world. Every league of every sport stopped operating, and with painfully few exceptions — Korean baseball and a UFC card among them — they’re still stopped. Into this void waltzed The Last Dance, a huge ESPN docuseries about Michael Jordan and the ’90s Bulls juggernaut that comes to an end this weekend.

Thankfully, The Last Dance is far from the only sports documentary out there. Filmmakers learned long ago that the natural drama of sports made great fodder for their work, and there are tons of great nonfiction films about sports. These are 15 of our favorites, all of which are entertaining and substantive enough to watch under normal circumstances, but even better during a global pandemic. And better yet, they all have valuable messages for kids who miss sports just as much as the athletes do.

Hoop Dreams

TL;DR: Two African-American teenagers from Chicago are recruited to play basketball at a suburban private school with one of the best programs in the state.
Why It’s Great for Kids: It’s just a great movie; Roger Ebert wrote that it was “what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
The Moral of the Story: Sports are an escape from reality, but they’re also indelibly shaped by it.

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Available on HBO Go.

The 16th Man

TL;DR: Nelson Mandela has just been elected the first post-apartheid president of South Africa, which is hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Long the favorite game of the country’s white population, Mandela made a bold statement when he wore a rugby jersey and shook hands with the Afrikaner captain of the team. Then they started winning.
Why It’s Great for Kids: This documentary is a fantastic introduction to Mandela told through a particularly compelling moment in sports — and world — history.
The Moral of the Story: Be like Mandela.

Available on ESPN+.

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Little Big Men

TL;DR: In 1982, a Little League team from Washington state made it all the way to the LLWS championship game. Years later, they reflect on the team’s upset victory — the first by an American team in over a decade —  and what it meant to a demoralized country.
Why It’s Great for Kids: It’s a movie about a bunch of kids overcoming the odds to do something incredible at a young age. What’s not to love?
The Moral of the Story: It’s never too early to do great things.

Available on ESPN+.

Dogtown and Z-Boys

TL;DR: The titular Zephyr Skateboard Team, largely made up of teenagers from difficult circumstances, brings surfing-inspired moves and attitudes to the nascent sport. A drought empties southern California’s pools, giving the scrappy group the perfect opportunity to test what skateboards can do.
Why It’s Great for Kids: Young people can make something great, despite tough odds, is a pretty universal message. The look of the film — a collage of 8- and 16-mm vintage footage alongside contemporary interviews with the likes of Tony Hawk and Henry Rollins makes this a sports doc that non-jocks will love.
The Moral of the Story: If you don’t like what you see, make something new.

Available on Crackle.

You Don’t Know Bo

TL;DR: Not since Jim Thorpe had American sports seen an athlete like Bo Jackson, able to compete at the highest levels of multiple sports. In addition to an obscene amount of natural talent and ambition, Jackson also had the charisma to become a cultural icon.
Why It’s Great for Kids: Bo Jackson is a crazy-talented, crazy-interesting dude your kids might not have heard of. This movie is a great way to fix that.
The Moral of the Story: Bo knows.

Available on ESPN+.

Cheer

TL;DR: This hit Netflix doc chronicles the juggernaut cheer program at a community college 50 miles south of Dallas. The cheerleaders work incredibly hard on their craft, nearly all of them working to get past childhood trauma, under the watchful eye of a no bullshit coach/mother figure.
Why It’s Great for Kids: This show is a radically honest look at the immense amount of hard work — physical, emotional, and mental — that’s needed to be a champion. And while it has tons of information about the world of cheerleading, the exposition never gets in the way of the story.
The Moral of the Story: The cheerleaders on the sideline deserve as much respect as those on the field or the court.

Available on Netflix.

Jordan Rides the Bus

TL;DR: Michael Jordan left basketball for baseball at what was then the height of his NBA career, shocking the world in a way that no athlete today could. He quickly found a place on the team even as his major league dreams dwindled and he returned to the NBA.
Why It’s Great for Kids: If your kids are hungry for more MJ content after The Last Dance, this is a great movie to show them. It’s from the director of Bull Durham, so it nails the nuances of baseball’s weirdness.
The Moral of the Story: Sports are great because they’re egalitarian/

Available on ESPN+.

When We Were Kings

TL;DR: An intimate look at the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.” the 1974 heavyweight title fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman.
Why It’s Great for Kids: The film demonstrates why Muhammed Ali is both the greatest boxer and one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century. His press conferences, in particular, are bombastic must-see-TV.
The Moral of the Story: “The Greatest” really was the greatest.

Available on Amazon with Cinemax.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die

TL;DR: British soccer team Sunderland’s 2017 was embarrassing, the equivalent of the Yankees being consigned to play AAA ball after losing too many games in the majors. This documentary captures their first season in the second tier and the impact of relegation on its mostly working-class fans.
Why It’s Great for Kids: Sports can make grown men openly weep, and it’s kind of nuts that we indoctrinate our kids into fandom that’s usually more torturous than it is rapturous. This series explores that question.
The Moral of the Story: Losing is hard on players and coaches — but it can be even harder on their fans.

Available on Netflix.

"Of Miracles and Men": The losing side of Miracle on Ice

On This Date: In 1980, the United States hockey team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports history.Here's the side to the "Miracle on Ice" you haven't seen.

Posted by ESPN 30 for 30 on Friday, February 22, 2019

Of Miracles and Men

TL;DR: This film is a look at the Miracle on Ice from the side of the Soviet team for whom the 1980 Lake Placid games were an unmitigated disaster in personal, professional, and national pride, the mirror image of the American experience.
Why It’s Great for Kids: Learning to see things from other points of view is a mark of a successful childhood. This film is a natural exercise in that kind of empathy, one that teaches kids to question their own assumptions.
The Moral of the Story: There are two sides to every story.

Available on ESPN+.

"The Good, The Bad, The Hungry" Trailer

ESPN 30 for 30's next film will dig into one of the biggest rivalries in sports: Takeru Kobayashi vs. Joey Chestnut."The Good, The Bad, The Hungry" premieres July 2.

Posted by ESPN on Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Good, The Bad, The Hungry

TL;DR: Rivalries are best when the two protagonists are head and shoulders above everyone else in their field and they both push each other harder. An example: Kobayashi and Chestnut battling onstage, year after year, at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Interviews with both champions shed light on their personal motivations and how they made each other and their developing sport better.
Why It’s Great for Kids: Competitive eating is gross, and kids like gross things. There’s also the simplicity of the format, which amounts to a clash of personalities and nations.
The Moral of the Story: Rivalries don’t have to be wars of atrition—they can make even the loser better in the long run.

Available on ESPN+.

Spellbound

TL;DR: We’re testing the definition of “sport” here, but the relentlessly competitive, high stakes nature of the National Spelling Bee (which does air on ESPN) make this one worth watching. It follows eight different spellers through the competition, and you’ll find that you develop favorites — rooting interests — the same way you do from watching sports.
Why It’s Great for Kids: This is a chance for kids to watch a documentary about other kids, and the relentless tension of the Bee means every word is its own drama. It’s hard to look away.
The Moral of the Story: “Logorrhea” has two R’s.

Available on Tubi.

More Than a Game

TL;DR: You like LeBron. Your kids like LeBron. You’ll all like this movie, which documents the NBA superstar’s AAU team — the whole team, not just him — from their preteen years into high school.
Why It’s Great for Kids: The novelty of young, scrawny LeBron alone makes this movie worth seeing, but it will also give kids a sense of the hard work that made him the player he is today.
The Moral of the Story: Being the best means working hard for a long, long time.

Available on Amazon Prime Video.

Ladies First

TL;DR: Another movie about a young athlete, this one a young woman born into poverty in India. She found an escape through archery in a society that didn’t encourage women to participate in sports, and became the number one ranked player in the world just TK years after first picked up a bow.
Why It’s Great for Kids: Sexism doesn’t just harm women; it robs all of us of the chance to see greatness. This short film is the tale of what happens when one girl flouts those expectations and finds greatness as a result.
The Moral of the Story: Everyone should get the chance to play.

Available on Netflix.