Skip to main content

Ranking the Best 30 for 30 Documentaries (So Far)

Examining the best 30 for 30s so far.

ESPN’s upcoming 30 for 30 presentation on the life of professional wrestler Ric Flair­—the Rolex-wearing, diamond ring-wearing, kiss-stealing (Woooooo!), wheelin', dealin', limousine-riding, jet-flying son-of-a-gun—promises to be one of the most anticipated sports documentaries of 2017. Last week the company announced "Nature Boy” will premiere on Nov. 7, at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. Director Rory Karpf (“I Hate Christian Laettner,” “The Book of Manning”) has consistently produced quality work which bodes well for viewers of the Flair doc.

Over the years people have asked on social media for my favorite 30 for 30s, but it’s not something I’ve ever written beyond answering readers on social media. It’s a slow summer week in sports, and I figured I might not have another shot to lead a column with it. So here it goes, my ranking of the best-ever 30 for 30s. Yours will no doubt look different.

1. O.J.: Made in America (2016) — ESPN’s ambitious and exhaustive documentary on O.J. Simpson is the best content the company has ever produced. Ezra Edelman delivered thrilling and uncompromising filmmaking—clocking in at seven hours and 43 minutes—and it will make you look at the most famous murder case in United States history with fresh eyes and under a larger prism.

2. Hillsborough (2014) — This Daniel Gordon-directed film technically falls under the 30 for 30 Soccer Stories series but I’m ditching that technicality for this list. The doc is a superior and haunting examination of the April 15, 1989 tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. Simply, one of the best films ever made on soccer.

Media Circus: How NBC Plans to Revive Premier League Ratings for 2017 Season

3. Once Brothers (2010) — A brilliant examination of the relationship between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, and the breakup of one of Europe's great amateur basketball squads (Yugoslavia took silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and won a gold medal at the 1990 FIBA World Championship). The film (directed by Michael Tolajian and produced by NBA Entertainment) is told through Divac's eyes and first-person narration as he returns to his native Serbia to retrace the steps of his amateur basketball team.

4. The Two Escobars (2010)   — A thrilling exploration from brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist of the rise and fall of Colombian soccer during its era of narco-fútbol, the deadly marriage of the country's cocaine cartels and soccer clubs that contributed to the death of Andrés Escobar, a defender for the 1994 Colombian World Cup team. The film let the public know how ambitious the 30 for 30 series would be.

5. The Best That Never Was (2010) — Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock had long been interested in former college star Marcus Dupree's story after reading The Courting of Marcus Dupree, a look at sports and race in the South via the recruiting of Dupree by the late Mississippi novelist, Willie Morris. Superb, honest work from both filmmaker and subject.

6. June 17th, 1994 (2010) — Director Brett Morgen examined the sporting events that occurred on the day of the infamous Simpson and Al Cowlings white Bronco drive. There is no narration to the film, and the juxtaposition of those events to the Simpson case produced mesmerizing filmmaking.

7. Elway to Marino (2013) — Ken Rodgers is one of the top talents at NFL Films and he offered a compelling examination of the 1983 NFL draft that was highlighted by a record six quarterbacks being taken in the first round, including future Hall of Famers John Elway and Dan Marino.

8. Of Miracles and Men (2015) — Similar to the excellent 2014 film, Red Army, Hock explored the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament through the Soviet lens, putting a human face on the Soviet players. The interviews with Slava Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak are particularly can’t-miss viewing.

The House That Built Sam Darnold

9. The U (2009) — Executives at ESPN Films will tell you that more people ask about "The U" than any other 30 for 30 documentary they've ever done. The Billy Corben-directed piece chronicled the fusion between the growing hip-hop culture in Miami and the swaggering University of Miami football program that won four national titles between 1983 and 1991. At the time it was the most-watched ESPN documentary ever, with 2.368 million viewers tuning in.

10. Fantastic Lies (2016) — The excellent documentarian Marina Zenovich delivered a highly compelling and well-paced film on the prosecutorial misconduct and false accusations that surrounded the Duke lacrosse case.

Last cut: Muhammad and Larry (2009).


SI Recommends

Which of these is your favorite 30 for 30 documentary?

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Hillsborough (2014)

Once Brothers (2010)

The Two Escobars (2010)

The Best That Never Was (2010)

June 17, 1994 (2010)

Elway to Marino (2013)

Of Miracles and Men (2015)

The U (2009)

Fantastic Lies (2016)


( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Episode 131 of The Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a sports media roundtable featuring Chad Finn, the sports media writer and general columnist for the Boston Globe and, and Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand. On this podcast, we discuss Jay Cutler leaving Fox Sports for the Dolphins and what that means for Fox Sports; Disney’s plans for an ESPN OTT (over-the-top) streaming service and what the future of ESPN might look like; what happens if cable keeps shrinking and digital TV companies don’t invest in sports content; why Fox Sports has kept Katie Nolan off its airwaves; what ESPN will do in terms of replacing Dan Shulman; whether Pete Rose will stay employed by Fox Sports; whether stories about Colin Kaepernick drive eyeballs and page views; Chad’s battles with Boston-based WEEI Radio and whether he is a fawning profile writer; what a sports journalist should do when a subject or someone close to a subject compliments a piece you wrote; how often you should give an organization a heads up, if ever on a negative piece you are writing; and much more.

The podcast also features an interview with Dari Nowkhah, the lead host of the SEC Network and co-host of ESPN Radio’s weekly Dari and Mel Show. For this segment we discuss how Nowkhah approaches his role for SEC Now; whether SEC viewers expect him to be a fan of the conference; what SEC program has the most rabid fan; why he left Bristol to be the host of ESPNU; whether Nick Saban gets favorable treatment both locally and nationally; how his agent submitted his resume and tapes to ESPN without him knowing; being the son of an Iranian immigrant; losing his child (Hayden Michael Nowkhah) after 39 days and how he and his wife, Jenn, channeled that grief; the non-profit he and his wife are part of that financially assists families of children awaiting a life-saving organ transplant; the significance of the Alabama-Florida State opener, and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

2. Steve Spurrier has never shied away from a microphone and now he’ll have easy access to one. The former Florida and South Carolina coach has joined SiriusXM as a college football analyst.

Starting Aug. 15, Spurrier will appear three times per week on SiriusXM College Sports Nation (channel 84 on satellite radios and the SiriusXM app) including every Tuesday from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm ET, every Wednesday from 5:00 to 6:00 pm ET, and every Thursday from 8:00 to 9:00 am ET. Last week—pure coincidence, honestly— ran a comprehensive piece on Spurrier's best shots at opposing schools while coaching, including the famous, “You can’t spell Citrus without the U-T.”

2a. On the subject of what Fox Sports will be doing with its No. 2 NFL team now that Jay Cutler has left for the Dolphins, a Fox Sports spokesman declined comment. The current booth of Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis is more than capable of doing any NFL game and Fox NFL executives would be wise to avoid the traditional trap of believing viewers need a big-name analyst (Davis was not an NFL star) on a Top 2 team. Let this team bake; they’ll be fine.

2b. One of the recent parlor games in sports media has come to a conclusion: Charissa Thompson is staying at Fox Sports.

2c. Great work by Golf Channel producer Adrienne Sack-Gallagher on this feature on Traden Karch.

2d. Prayers up for NBC Sports NHL and horse racing analyst, Ed Olczyk.

Former Olympic Teammates Aim to Steer U.S. to PyeongChang Gold Despite Roster Challenges

3. Jason Gay is a unique figure in the sports media. As the lead sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal—and a terrific one—his words are read by millions of readers (including some billionaires). But since 2011 Gay has led a writing life away from the Journal that includes reporting cover stories for Vogue. Among the subjects he’s profiled: Beyonce, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Taylor Swift and many more boldfaced names. Last week his interview with Lawrence drew a lot of attention including this Boston Globe headline: (“Jennifer Lawrence: 'I normally don't like Harvard people.’”) Last week I exchanged emails with Gay on how he approaches his Vogue assignments.

When writing a profile for Vogue, how is your approach similar or different when compared to your work in sports writing?

Gay: Oh man. I have to confide something: nothing makes me want to jump out a window more than writers writing about writing. You have to promise me: if I start to sound like a Nieman Fellow, you’ll come over to my apartment, and hit me over the head with a dead fish. But to answer your question: I try to approach everything the same way. Maybe that’s because I am a simple man of simple thoughts. Maybe because I am butt-lazy. I do try to read everything I can, and think of a few areas where I’m (hopefully) going to engage a subject, and get her or him talking about something that will be fresh for readers. With magazine stories (and I do a lot with the Journal’s fab-as-hell magazine, WSJ, too) you’ll probably have more time—not just with the story, but the subject, which is always nice. And you’re probably not at a Knicks game, which is also nice. Honestly, no matter what you're writing about in 2017, I think the goal’s the same: make it interesting, because everyone just wants to go watch a video about a llama who became friends with a turtle.

Have you found any similarities between subjects such as Taylor Swift, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence etc.…to the athletes you have written about it? If so, what are they?

Gay: Enviable youth, wealth and hair? I mean, in those specific instances, you’re talking about people who have done big things at a young age, so they have that in common. They’re also accustomed to living in a media (and social media) environment where virtually anything they say can become news, or ripped apart from its context, which is nerve-racking for them. I think actors are a tiny bit different than athletes in that, weirdly, famous athletes have often been famous for a long time. LeBron James has been famous for most of his life. But Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t a top high school acting prospect; she wasn’t a first-round pick. Fame comes more suddenly, which not everyone adapts to, or handles terribly well. On the flip side, actors don’t have to listen to themselves talked about on sports talk radio.

Were I a celebrity/athlete handler, my advice would always be: fire me, and just be you. Jennifer Lawrence is a great example. It’s biologically impossible for her to not be herself, and it’s what makes people like her—and makes for a great interview. Everyone wins. I don’t see any upside to talking like a robot anymore. Even A-Rod realized this! I interviewed A-Rod early in his time with the Yankees, and he was so cautious, it was like talking to a bowl of boiled potatoes. Now he’s Mr. TV Opinion Man, and everyone loves him. It’s astonishing. You want people to like you, let it hang out a little bit.

Are any of these subjects aware you are a sports writer prior to the interview?

Gay: Not once. However, Taylor Swift’s father, Scott, is a longtime Journal subscriber, and Taylor’s written in the past for the paper, so I like to think of Taylor Swift as my fellow Journal colleague. It comes up sometimes. Honestly, I don’t know what magazine subjects think when I tell them I’m a sports writer at the WSJ. I can’t believe it myself. I’m a lucky duck. I should be selling hand puppets at the mall. Now you should probably go get that dead fish.

Yankees' Rotational Injuries, Struggles Loom Over a Potential Playoff Run

4. Non sports pieces of note:

• A truly remarkable piece by Jay Caspian Kang for the New York Times Magazine: What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity

The Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera headed to a job fair

•Great piece by The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer on Facebook and Google’s negative impact on journalism: “When Silicon Valley took over cautionary tale” 

• Via NPR’s Alison Kodjak: Widowed Early, A Cancer Doctor Writes About The Harm Of Medical Debt

• The Ringer’s Molly McHugh on an on-demand culture

• From Lara Rabinovitch of The Underground Chefs of South L.A: 

• Harrowing, via The Economist‏: There are no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea, but blundering into war would be the worst.

• From Atlanta Magazine’s Amanda Avutu: How a Syrian refugee family changed my life.

• Great piece by Abe Streep for Outside Online: How Big Data Saved the Mountain Town.

• Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts lying to ourselves about race.

• From The New York Times Vows section: She’s 98. He’s 94. They Met at the Gym.

Sports pieces of note:

•’s Mike Sielski on the life and death of a Philadelphia college basketball star.

• Deadspin's Dave McKenna, on the kid who didn’t die at Riverfront Stadium.

• Fox Sports reporter Kris Budden: Why I hid my pregnancy on TV.

• Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg on Navy Football’s relationship with the sports media.

5. Here's Ric Flair promoting the PGA Championship for TNT.

5a. NBC’s teaser opener to the Premier League season featured some truly award-winning acting from NBC’s on-air soccer talent.

5b. ESPN is holding another Fantasy Football marathon to push its fantasy business.

5c. Longtime sports radio producer Jason Martin writes about losing 100 pounds.

5d. NBC’s Craig Calcaterra reported that Disney will get one MLB game a night to stream on its new ESPN-branded streaming service. The game will be behind a paywall.