This Sunday marks the 10 year anniversary of the first ever 30 for 30 to air on ESPN. That film, King’s Ransom, helped propel this series from a gimmick to celebrate ESPN’s 30 years in business to a tentpole part of its non-live event coverage over the last decade.
Earlier this week, the Sports Business Journal talked to a variety of people involved with the 30 for 30 series over the years about their favorite films in the series. I figured we did something similar over the years with out staff, but we apparently never have. So this week, I asked our staff a basic question: what is your favorite 30 for 30 film, and why?
Here are our responses.
Phillip Bupp: I usually do my best to be impartial, but I’m making this choice as a fan. Hillsborough is not only my favorite 30 for 30, but is also one of my favorite documentaries ever.
If you’re a Liverpool fan, you know about Hillsborough. But what the film Hillsborough did was not only educate people who had no clue about the disaster, or even who Liverpool FC is, but also exposed new things in the police cover-up that nobody else knew. And this film, plus the government’s findings absolving Liverpool fans of blame, is now beginning to bring those responsible to justice.
The best sports documentaries aren’t just about sports: they’re about sharing something that’s important with sports used as a backdrop. Hillsborough wasn’t just for Liverpool fans, and it wasn’t even for sports fans. It’s a story of perseverance that transcended any result or trophy, and anyone can take something away from watching the film.
Matt Clapp: I’ll go with June 17, 1994. There may have been better 30 for 30 editions (Once Brothers is probably the best one I’ve seen), but this one really hits anybody that remembers that day well…especially because most of us forgot *what else* happened that day. You know, *aside* from O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase.
Because — as we learn/are reminded in the film — so, so much happened in the sports world, while Juice was on the loose: Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks, the opening ceremony of the World Cup (hosted in the U.S.), Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open, the New York Rangers having their championship parade, Ken Griffey Jr. tying Babe Ruth for the most home runs before June 30, etc.
The film doesn’t even include any interviews or narration; it’s all TV footage. And that’s plenty enough to be captivating.
Ben Koo: ESPN has oddly flip flopped on if they consider O.J.: Made in America a 30 for 30. If we do consider it a 30 for 30, it’s hard not to give it the nod here. It’s tempting to go for something a bit more organic, gritty, and less well known, given OJ was given nearly unlimited production resources, runtime, and was created with winning awards in mind. That said, it’s just an amazing piece of cinema. I was skeptical about the idea of watching eight hours on OJ, but the ambition paid off in a big way. This was a crowning achievement for ESPN and director Ezra Edelman, and gave us a introspective look at not only OJ, but American sports, society, class, and race in an absolutely towering film. I’d like to see ESPN swing for the fences again like this, but I’m not sure we’re going to see that anytime soon. Even if we do, I doubt we’ll get something as masterful as OJ: Made In America.
But if we don’t consider OJ: Made in America a 30 for 30, I’ll go with Pony Excess, solely based on the fact that I think it’s the most rewatchable 30 for 30. The SMU death penalty is a story that predates the memory of most sports fans today. Pony Excess (great name, by the way) does a masterful job of retracing the ingredients that led to one of the biggest scandals to come out of college sports. It’s riveting from start to finish, with a lot of crazy characters, plot twists, bomb shells, and so on. It’s one of the few 30 for 30s that I’ll try to rewatch on a pretty frequent basis, and seems to only get better over time.
Joe Lucia: Looking at the Wikipeda entry for 30 for 30, there have been a whole bunch of editions that I either haven’t seen or just can’t remember. This makes sense, given that there have been over 100 30 for 30 releases over the last ten years (with so many of those releases clustered from 2009-2014). My choice is gonna be The U, if only because it’s the first 30 for 30 that I can remember that really got people talking and became A Thing online. It was also the first post-Heisman 30 for 30, a time slot that became synonymous with a top-tier football 30 for 30 until boxing took over the time slot in 2017.
The U captivated me because, even though there was a significant pro-Miami bias throughout the film, most of the particulars involved didn’t hold back in discussing their time at Miami (controversy and all) and the film did a great job at exploring how Miami became THE U in the 1980s. I feel like that if The U bombed, 30 for 30 could have stopped at 30 films, lost its post-Heisman slot, or even could have just been shuttered out of ESPN’s plans altogether. This was both a mindlessly entertaining film, and a vastly important film in the history of 30 for 30.
Jay Rigdon: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks. The reasoning is simple, on one level. I’m a Pacers fan, and reliving some of the highest highs in franchise history (ABA doesn’t count) was a lot of fun, especially with all the principals involved.
On another level, though, it’s tough to imagine this story being done better. It hit every key moment, placed it in the proper context, and then got fantastic quotes, which is a job made easier when Reggie Miller and Spike Lee are two of the main antagonists.
Plus, everyone shit talking John Starks a few decades after the fact never gets old.