The 15 best sports TV shows to binge
Ivan Radford | On 09, Aug 2020
Whether you’re looking for an excuse to put off exercise, need inspiration for your latest get-fit target, or just want a fix of feel-good underdog competition when there’s no football on the telly, we round up the best sports TV shows available to stream in the UK – because sometimes, you want more than 90 minutes’ sporting action to keep you cheering.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
Football, they say, is game of two halves. In the case of Sunderland Association Football Club, it’s a game of two halves, hundreds of disappointments, several managers, multiple fights for survival and a handful of stunning goals. For a town that loves its local team like no other, it’s the very stuff of life. For everyone else, it makes for sublime television. The result is a fantastic, gripping, moving piece of telly for fans and non-fans alike: those who know Sunderland’s story will grimace at knowing what’s to come, while those who don’t will be hooked in by the emotional blow that each fixture delivers. Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a marathon, and its beauty lies in just how ugly the sport can be.
The Last Dance
This thrilling 10-part series tells the story of how Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls came to dominate and define basketball in the 1990s. The basketball star remains a sporting legend even decades after the peak of his NBA career. The documentary, directed by Jason Hehir, charts the simultaneous rise of Jordan and the NBA, boasting more than 500 hours of never-before-seen footage from the Bulls’ last championship run in the 1997-98 season. Gorgeously edited and structured, the result is a binge-watch that will hook in anyone, even if they haven’t seen Space Jam.
Friday Night Lights
Peter Berg’s sports drama follows the coach (Kyle Chandler) and players of a high school football team in Dillon, Texas, as they struggle through professional and personal troubles. Making the rare successful jump from the big screen to the small screen in 2006, the show repeatedly defied attempts to cancel it, eventually running for five seasons, ultimately winning multiple Emmys. Its compelling performances, earnest heart and ability to sensitively tackle issues from racism and financing for education to family planning and living in a minority, poor community have made this the go-to TV show for any sports fans. Almost 10 years after its final run, there’s still good reason for that. This is the daddy of all sports dramas.
Netflix’s wrestling comedy, inspired by the the short-lived but beloved titular series from the 80s, follows Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a struggling out-of-work actress as she joins the first ever women’s wrestling TV show, alongside a mixed ensemble of costumed misfits. The result grows into an empowering celebration of a diverse group of women, and a nuanced tale of identity, perception, friendship and glamorous costumes. And did we mention the wrestling?
Fantasy football is tough enough to grasp for anyone who doesn’t have their heads buried in it – but fantasy football involving the NFL? That’s surely an impenetrable wall for people in the UK. And yet Seinfeld writer Jeff Schaffer makes this comedy about a group of friends setting up a weekly line-up and drafting players each season is a surprisingly universal and entertaining watch. That’s partly because of the strong cast – Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton, Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer – and likeable chemistry underpinning their convincing friendships, and also because it’s very funny.
Last Chance U
Netflix’s documentary series takes us behind-the-scenes at East Mississippi Community College, where one of the most successful teams in the USA’s Junior College league makes and breaks the future of young athletes. The good news is that Last Chance U isn’t about football. It’s about the people who play it, and the stakes that are on the pitch: The Lions are a mixed bunch of misfits, from college dropouts to poverty-stricken locals, who all have one thing in common: football is their ticket out of town. Many of them people of colour, many of them without a back-up plan, they pin their hopes on the sport, whether that’s the long-term dream of making it to the NFL or the more immediate challenge of just getting a college scholarship. Every match, every rivalry for every spot on the team, every disciplinary or pitch riot (in an ominous sign of what’s to come, things get violent in the very first episode) – whatever happens matters to them all. Sporting dramas about underdogs are two a penny, but you’ve never seen a sports story so raw or devastating – and it remains so even as later seasons move on to other teams across the US, from Independence Community College to Oakland’s Laney College.
From the creator of Last Chance U, Cheer is a six-episode series about competitive college cheerleaders. It follows the cheerleaders of Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. Led by Monica Aldama, the troupe has won 14 National Championships since 2000. But with the same focus on the human drama behind the competition that defined Last Chance U, this becomes a gruelling study of the toll that determination to succeed takes on these young adults. Universally gripping telly, even for non-sports fans.
All or Nothing: Manchester City
“Often, when I don’t know something, I act in front of the players as if I do,” admits Pep Guardiola in Amazon’s All or Nothing: Manchester City. It’s a confession that ostensibly sets the tone for the fascinating series, one that takes us behind the scenes of the Premier League football club – a place cameras rarely go. The eight-part series charts the entire 2017/2018 season, from the rush to bag big name transfers in September to balancing manpower and energy between the league and FA and Carabao Cups to closing out the end of a record-breaking season. But Guardiola is the MVP here, and his fanatical philosophy is contagious, even when you’re frustrated by the suspicion that the show is painting over the cracks to keep things positive. For a less glamorous watch, try the international counterparts, All or Nothing: Philadelphia Eagles, New Zealand All Blacks and Carolina Panthers.
Le Mans: Racing Is Everything
Dating all the way back to the 1920s, there’s a whole heap of history to be explored over almost a century of intense driving but this documentary mostly focuses on the 2015 race, which saw Mark Webber making one of his many attempts to cross the line first. Director James Erskine cuts that footage with fresh commentary and vox pops fuelling a momentum that becomes more compelling the more you stick with the series, largely because the documentary does such a good job of communicating the frustration and efforts of each driver just to keep going. From the people in the pit to those watching numbers on the screen, there’s a tangible sense of the stakes involved for each member of each team. Gripping telly, with 23-minute episodes that are fast-paced and thrilling.
F2: Finding Football
Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch have scored a win with football fans on YouTube, by uploading vlogs showcasing their tekkers with cool trick shots. Here, they get their own series, but take their own back seat to showcase other players, from Argentina to Ireland. The slickly choreographed series gives us a window on to a diverse array of cultures and the role that football plays within them, combining insight with genuinely cool footballing action. In other words, it’s an old-fashioned travelogue, but with keepy-uppy instead of Michael Palin.
This Dutch drama follows two brothers, who lives are torn apart by the beautiful game. In other words, it’s an age-old family saga of greed and ambition, that just happens to have some football in it. Our brothers in question are Alan (Joren Seldeslachts) and Dennis (Oscar Willems) Moerman, who both have a passion for kicking a ball around a field. So when a talent scout arrives for Alan, the older of the pair, he’s overjoyed to get his shot at a premiership team. The only problem? It’s actually Dennis they wanted, and so the stage is set for a drawn-out falling-out, as Dennis sees his star begin to rise, and Alan looks on, embarrassed and envious. With their dad initially acting as both their managers, the result is an entertaining with just enough authenticity to score a success.
All 4 (Walter Presents)
GRAND PRIX Driver
“Over the next six days, testing goes from bad to worse.” That’s the sound of something going horribly wrong in Amazon’s new documentary, GRAND PRIX Driver – and it’s not until you reach the end of the series that you appreciate just how rare that is. McLaren’s disaster of a year makes for a compelling, unusually candid, sports documentary.
Based on Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan’s best-selling books, Amazon’s kids show follows Devin Burke (newcomer Sixx Orange), who was the star player on her school soccer team, until her family moved to California midway through the academic year. Now, she has to rise to the challenge after discovering her new school team, The Kicks, has been on a losing streak over the last few months and are badly in need of a leader to rally the team. Nothing says strong teamwork ethics like a sports series, but The Kicks takes an impressive punt at the theme, while offering up TV role models that remind viewers that girls play football too. Back of the net.
“I’m gonna teach you the style of fighting your pansy ass generation desperately needs.” That’s the world’s worst pupil graduating to become an even worse teacher in Cobra Kai, the sequel to The Karate Kid that nobody saw coming. A YouTube Original programme (heading to Netflix for its third season), the idea of catching up with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) three decades after the seminal sports flick might sound like a neat idea for a sketch, but Cobra Kai is a full-blown 10-part series – and its endearingly nostalgic balance of understanding its characters and featuring familiar cameos from the franchise means the show delivers an entertaining punch.
Frank Grillo gets a deserving lead role in this MMA drama, which follows a family-run gym in California, headed up by his veteran fighter, Alvey. The bills are mounting up and his struggle to build a successful team of fighters is hard-going, but those are the least of his worries, from star prize competitor Nate (the youngest son)) to part-loving older son Jay, former champ Ryan (Matt Lauria) just out of prison and Nick Jonas as an earnest fighter on the way up. MMA veteran Joe Stevenson trained the cast and is also the show’s fight choreographer, but the secret to Kingdom’s success is that it grapples with each cliche individually – and treats any tropes with respect. Underneath these sweaty, macho exteriors is a deceptively accessible, engrossing drama about family. With its scuzzy sets and low-key contests, Kingdom’s realistic world-building is to MMA what Empire is to the music industry.