Best sports documentaries | The Week

Sport brings people together in a way few things can.

Entertainment studios have capitalised on this maxim by producing a bevy of series and films appealing to fans new and old, resulting in what Sam Carp of SportsPro Media described as a “gold rush” of content.

Whether the goal is to “super-serve their existing fans with more access” or “broaden their appeal to new audiences”, here’s a selection of recent releases that will excite even the least athletically inclined viewer.

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David Beckham is one of the greatest players to represent Manchester United and the Three Lions, but he publicised little about his personal life during his career on the pitch. This 2023 four-part documentary – produced in part by Beckham’s Studio 99 – sheds light on what the all-time great was up to off the pitch and lets the world know what he’s been doing since his 2013 retirement.

It’s “packed with famous names”, but stays grounded with “anecdotes and titbits” from the footballer’s family and colleagues, said The Guardian. This includes the legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whom Beckham saw as a “father figure”, recalling “a kind of heartbreak” over the breakdown of their relationship.

Even if, like Beckham’s wife Victoria a.k.a. Posh Spice, “you were not into football then and you are not into football now”, the series “makes for fascinating viewing”, said The New Yorker.

Where to watch: Netflix

Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Six seasons in, the progenitor of the modern sports docuseries “shines for seasoned motorsports devotees”, said Autosport, by giving them what they came for in the first place: “fresh fly-on-the-wall footage”.

Rumours had circulated, according to Motor Sport, that the show was on the verge of upheaval or cancellation after “losing some of its va-va-voom”, but a sense of “self-awareness” mixed with “medium-ish” insight into Formula 1 makes this “certainly watchable”.

While this newest season hasn’t had the same impact as the groundbreaking first, said IGN, it’s still a “very effective reminder” of the “fascinating stories” for which grand prix racing is a breeding ground.

Where to watch: Netflix

Welcome to Wrexham

Despite commentators decrying the Hollywood-money driven renaissance of the then-fifth-tier Wrexham FC as “social engineering” or “manipulative”, said Rolling Stone, the second season of “Welcome to Wrexham” still has “plenty of magic”.

While detractors have accused actors-cum-owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney of turning Wrexham into a “glorified piece of branded content”, their ownership has been a “genuine boon”, said The Ringer. The series shines most brightly when it showcases “the intimate bond between the club and the community”.

Where to watch: Disney+

Full Swing

The 2023 effort from Box to Box Films – the team behind “Drive to Survive” – recently aired its second season, described by GolfPass as a “fun watch, full of impressively deep player and event access”. 

It benefits strongly by circumstance, said Today’s Golfer. There’s a “ready-made script” that dives into golf’s “civil war” between the storied PGA Tour and Saudi-backed LIV Golf, a war made all the more intense when news of their “previously unthinkable” merger broke during the season.

Another “free hit” was the timing of the Ryder Cup to close the eight-episode run. “Golf’s greatest event” was a “fitting crescendo” that both newcomers and die-hard fans could appreciate.

Where to watch: Netflix

Copa 71

For all the ground gained in recent years, women’s football is still an economic and cultural step below the men’s game. In 1971, however, a tournament featuring six international women’s teams played a final in front of 110,000 fans: still the “best attended women’s sports event in history”, according to the British Film Institute (BFI).

After the tournament, held in Mexico without the permission of any footballing governing body, the Football Association and Fifa “dedicated themselves”, said The Guardian, “to denying its success” and “punishing the women”.

This documentary, featuring archival footage as well as interviews with the players, implicitly asks the question of where football would be now had this “potential watershed moment” not been “largely forgotten”, said the BFI.

Where to watch: in cinemas now

Giannis: The Marvelous Journey

It may be true that only fans of the National Basketball Association (NBA) know his name, but the rags-to-riches story of Giannis Antetokounmpo will tug anybody’s heartstrings.

Born to undocumented Nigerian immigrants to Greece, Antetokounmpo and his three brothers “lived under the threat of deportation in a sometimes hostile place”, said Awful Announcing. Their parents “eked out a living selling trinkets on the streets” and sometimes went hungry so their children could eat, said CNN.

Antetokounmpo rewarded their sacrifice many times over by flourishing as a basketball player, eventually leaving for America and winning an NBA championship as well as two Most Valuable Player awards.

Made all the more real by interviewing his family and loved ones, this documentary “isn’t just an immigrant story. It’s an American success story”.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime