Rather than go cold turkey on sports, you’re probably looking for programming to stream.
We’re here to help.
We mined the ESPN Plus subscription service’s library of documentaries, primarily consisting of its “30 for 30” series along with the “ESPN Films Presents” and “Nine for IX” brand extensions.
Some very good mini-documentaries are under the “30 for 30” aegis, such as quick histories of the high-five, the Arnold Palmer drink, scapegoat Richard Jewell and how Alex Rodriguez almost joined the Red Sox.
But the focus here is on the 25 best long-form documentaries in this group, which should keep ESPN Plus subscribers busy for a while.
And if you’re not an ESPN Plus subscriber, ESPN announced Friday it is airing an encore presentation of the five-part “O.J.: Made in America” — No. 1 on our list and the 2016 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature — in prime time next week.
1. ‘O.J.: Made in America’
There are two kinds of stories that distinguish the best ESPN documentaries. Some focus on people and events few know well. Others take on events everyone thinks they know and tell them powerfully.
Ezra Edelman’s epic 2016 Oscar-winning miniseries ostensibly is about the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson. But rather than simply retrace a familiar narrative, Edelman delivers a forceful meditation on race, class and celebrity in America that’s both entertaining and eye-opening.
More than 90 fans were trampled to death and nearly 800 injured during a Liverpool-Nottingham Forest FA Cup semifinal match on April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England.
Daniel Gordon’s 2014 film pushes past the party line blaming the tragedy on hooliganism to expose how negligence, mismanaged crowd control and poor stadium design made the human toll virtually inevitable.
3. ‘June 17, 1994’
Using nothing but archival materials — some that aired at the time and some presented for the first time — Brett Morgen offers a verite look back at this seminal Friday almost 26 years ago.
The day is remembered for the slow-speed police pursuit and eventual arrest of O.J. Simpson, who was riding in friend and former teammate Al Cowling’s white Ford Bronco. But the surreal chase of the onetime athlete, actor and TV analyst was just one of many sports threads that day.
Morgen’s 2010 documentary, by turns funny, sad and bizarre, toggles between the World Cup’s opening ceremony in Chicago, the end of Arnold Palmer’s U.S. Open career, a Stanley Cup parade in New York, the NBA Finals and more. Again, it’s not just about all the things you saw and remember, it’s all the things you didn’t and don’t.
4. ‘Elway to Marino’
Six quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft. Hall of Famer John Elway was first overall. The sixth, Hall of Famer Dan Marino, was selected with the 27th and penultimate pick. But it’s all the drama in between Ken Rodgers seizes upon in his 2013 retelling.
There’s Elway’s adamant refusal to play for the Colts, who drafted him. There’s also the sad spectacle of watching Marino go unchosen. Some of those drafted earlier would prove their worth — as in Eric Dickerson, Jimbo Covert and Jim Kelly, who played in the USFL before finally joining the Bills — but plenty of teams would rue letting Marino slip past.
5. ‘Once Brothers’
Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic — a Serb and Croat, respectively — were rival NBA players. They once had been great friends, teammates on the Yugoslavian national team. But war in their homeland drove a wedge between them. Petrovic’s 1993 death in a car accident left Divac with grief and regret. Michael Tolajian’s 2010 documentary captures all of it.
6. ‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’
Steve James, best known for “Hoop Dreams,” lends a personal perspective to this 2010 story of how Allen Iverson’s basketball future nearly was derailed by an assault charge while he was a high school student in Hampton, Va., where both Iverson and James grew up. It’s an examination of racial perspectives, how difficult it is to shake a reputation once someone has been tagged and so much more.
7. ‘Venus Vs.’
Before “Selma,” “A Wrinkle in Time” and “How They See Us,” Ava DuVernay delivered this 2013 piece on tennis star Venus Williams that was part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series celebrating the 1972 enactment of Title IX equal opportunity in education legislation.
Like “No Crossover,” it pairs a filmmaker and athlete who grew up in the same community (Compton, Calif., in this case). “Venus Vs.” isn’t just about Williams’ play but the rise of female athletes and her role in the fight for pay equity.
8. ‘The U’
Billy Corben, who’s from Miami, recalls the 1980s and ‘90s “Miami Vice”-era rogue heyday of the University of Miami football program in this 2009 film. Rules and laws are afterthoughts. You also might enjoy Corben’s 2014 “The U Part 2” and Patrick Creadon’s 2016 “Catholics vs. Convicts,” which recalls Miami’s 1988 game against Notre Dame.
9. ‘Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks’
It’s the Pacers’ Reggie Miller versus the mid-1990s Knicks, but it’s also Miller versus Knicks superfan Spike Lee in this 2010 documentary from Dan Klores about how a player can get under the skin of a franchise and everyone close to it.
10. ‘Catching Hell’
A lot of people were upset upon hearing Alex Gibney was dredging up the story of the 2003 Cubs collapse and fan Steve Bartman.
What they didn’t know was Gibney’s finished product, largely a discussion of societal scapegoating, would be both sympathetic and exonerating when it came to the guy who no doubt once thought himself lucky to have first-row seats for a playoff game at Wrigley Field.
11. ‘Let Them Wear Towels’
12. ‘The Best That Never Was’
13. ‘Pony Excess’
14. ‘The Two Escobars’
15. ‘You Don’t Know Bo’
16. ‘Without Bias’
17. ‘Jordan Rides the Bus’
19. ‘Of Miracles and Men’
20. ‘Survive and Advance’
21. ‘Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?’
22. ‘The ’99ers’
23. ‘Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies’
24. ‘The Price of Gold’
25. ‘Bad Boys’