SBD/Issue 35/Sports Media

ESPN's "30 For 30" Documentary Series Drawing Rave Reviews

Sports documentaries have become a Tuesday-night fixture on ESPN this month, as the net rolled out its "30 for 30" film series to celebrate the network's 30th anniversary. The most recent broadcast was "Muhammad and Larry," a piece by director Albert Maysles that documented Ali's last major fight. With four films in the books, and 26 more on the horizon, Assistant Managing Editor Brian Helfrich caught up with Sporting News' Chris Littmann, The Big Lead's Tyler Duffy and Fang's Bites' Ken Fang to gather some early thoughts on the series.

Q: Have the first four documentaries exceeded your expectations for the series?

Littmann: Definitely. Of the four, the only one -- based on subject alone -- that really interested me was "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" That being said, I’ve loved all four and been drawn to subjects I wouldn’t have invested time in otherwise.

Duffy: I don't think they have exceeded my expectations, but my expectations were high initially. I thought two of the films were fantastic and two needed a little work. I haven't been overwhelmed or underwhelmed, just whelmed.

Fang: They have. I've been quite impressed with them. The four that have aired to date have been done very well. Very glad to see the directors were given plenty of autonomy for their subject matters. 

Q: What could the films do better?

Littmann: In the case of the USFL film, there was probably a greater need to focus on one subject. It tried to give an awful lot of history while also tackling the matter of why it failed. Stories about some of the owners could’ve been documentaries unto themselves.

Duffy: Though it's difficult with an hour to work with, I think the films could do better incorporating a narrative arc. The films are meant to capture an event, but the context before and afterward are what make the event important. Because these are not omniscient narrator type documentaries on the history channel, the imagery needs to tell the story. In some films this was done brilliantly, in others it has been lacking.

Fang: I thought the USFL documentary could have been quicker paced. It dragged a bit in the middle. For "Kings Ransom" on the Wayne Gretzky trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles, there was too much grainy video, maybe less of a dependence on that, plus I thought director Peter Berg was on too much. Other than that, the documentaries were just about right.

Q: Bill Simmons notably said the series would outshine HBO Sports, more or less. Was Simmons off base with that prediction?

Littmann: I think he’s right, in that these films have gone after subjects that are really virgin soil. Compare that to HBO’s next project, which is on Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Now, that isn’t to say it won’t be well done, but haven’t we seen a million pieces on these two together?

Duffy: I haven't really watched that many HBO documentaries, so I'm not really sure.

Fang: Typical Bill Simmons, he has a tendency to overhype. I don't think "30 for 30" will outshine HBO Sports because HBO usually takes its time and does about 4-6 documentaries a year. If the future documentaries in the "30 for 30" series are not done as well as the first four efforts, then there's no chance that ESPN's efforts will outshine HBO. There's nothing wrong with having two sports network documentary units. There's room for both. And there's no need for ESPN to be better than HBO. They can be equals.

Littman Says "Muhammad And Larry"
Easily The Best "30 For 30" Thus Far
Q: Which of the four has been the best? Which one that has yet to air are you most looking forward to?

Littmann: "Muhammad and Larry" is easily the best of the first four because the documentary is largely left to stand alone without any sort of personal bias from the filmmaker. Of the remaining films, I’m undoubtedly looking forward to "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson." I’m drawn to knowing the intimate details of how it all happened, and Steve James, who did "Hoop Dreams," should do an incredible job.

Duffy: I thought "Muhammad and Larry" was the best. I'm looking forward to "Jordan Rides The Bus" because I think it's one of the most weird and fascinating sports events in my lifetime. It's probably the conspiracy theorist in me, but I'm not sure we'll ever get the full story there.

Fang: Of the four, I liked "Muhammad and Larry" the best. Director Albert Maysles was able to cull from his own historical footage to make a very powerful documentary on the 1980 Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes fight. The film was done very well and it was good to see updated interviews with Larry Holmes and members of the Ali circus. This is one subject I would have liked to have seen HBO handle.

Q: ESPN hands you the reins to the 31st documentary -- what's your topic and what's your title?

Littmann: This might sound strange, but I was a big baseball card collector growing up, and that industry has fallen off harder than the stock market last year. I’d love something that looks at the rise and fall and some people who absolutely lost their shirt. I had multiple card/hobby shops near my home growing up, but they’ve all been gone for years now. I’d love to see how it correlates to the MLB strike and steroid era, too.

Duffy: "Flash In The Pan -- The Story of the NASL."

Fang: Being a lifelong Red Sox fan, I would focus on the 2004 Red Sox World Series Championship. The title, "Breaking the Drought."

PACKING QUITE A PUNCH: NPR's Linda Holmes reviewed the series under the header, "Why Even People Who Hate Sports Should Be Watching ESPN's '30 For 30.'" The documentaries are "excellent, insightful television," whether you "care about sports or not." Holmes noted it is "hard to get me interested in boxing," but "Muhammad And Larry" is "fantastic, because it does what all four episodes I've seen so far have done: it approaches stories about sports as stories about people." These films are "not stories about athletes as titans, really, except in the sense that they are done with a keen understanding that being a titan carries personal consequences." All four documentaries thus far are "all aimed at answering seemingly perplexing questions -- 'How did that happen?'" Holmes: "When you're asking great questions about why things happen, it doesn't really matter whether the background is politics or sports or romance or the military" (, 10/28).

MOMENT IN THE SUN: In Newark, Alan Sepinwall wrote "Muhammad and Larry" tells the "ultimately happy story" of Larry Holmes, who "never got much respect as champ, in part because everyone felt bad about the whupping he laid on Ali, in part because he was a fairly bland, unassuming guy" compared to previous heavyweight champions. It feels "oddly refreshing to see a relatively well-adjusted champ, one who gets so much obvious, simple pleasure out of listening to songs written about him, and who's perfectly happy to still be living in his hometown" of Easton, Pennsylvania (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 10/28). However, Holmes said that he "felt discredited" by the documentary. Holmes: "They did too much about Muhammad Ali on the drug situation. They said he was taking thyroid pills, and that the pills were doing this and that. As far as that goes, it discredits me because they're telling me now that this man was on drugs, and that's the reason that I probably beat him like I beat him" (, 10/28). 

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