The Best Sports Shows of the 21st Century, So Far

Who wants to watch live sports programming when you can get all of that same sporty goodness with the addition of a little drama, a dash of comedy, and whole lot of heart? Historically there have been some downright TV gems with sports at the center of them, from offerings like Coach and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, to nostalgic weekend indulgences like Hang Time, to soapy teen dramas like One Tree Hill.

As this week, The Mighty Ducks film franchise has been revived by Disney+ for the new weekly series The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, we figured now was as good a time as any to hit the ice and see which 21st century sports shows served up the winningest game plans and won a permanent place in our hearts.

All American

Action on this CW high school drama kicked off in 2018 by introducing us to all-star footballer Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), who was inspired by real-life athlete Spencer Paysinger. All American tracks his transition from a school in South Central to Beverly Hills, where a rule in the system forces him to move in with a wealthy family in order to play for his new school. From there, the show dishes out additional stories of sibling rivalry and a variety of other high-school happenings, while also digging into issues of wealth and privilege. The series quickly won over critical hearts, and The CW recently renewed it for a fourth season.

Ballers

Is there anything Dwayne Johnson can’t do? That would be a hard no, according to the success of this HBO dramedy, which ran for five seasons on HBO and racked up just as many Emmy nominations. The series follows a former football star who fires up a new career as a financial planner for other NFL pros, and tracks the relationships between the various players and their teams as deals are made during the off-season. The show hails from Entourage producer Stephen Levinson, and features the same inside-ball perspective that makes you feel like you’re getting a true look at how the sausage (or is that pigskin?) is made.

Brockmire

Hank Azaria stepped up to the plate and showed us a whole new side of himself as the title MLB sportscaster in this hilarious IFC comedy, which ran for four seasons before it wrapped last year. The series (based on a character Azaria created for a Funny or Die sketch), follows a guy who goes through a very public meltdown on-air as a result of his wife’s infidelity. A decade later he reclaims a piece of his former life by starting over with the minor leagues in a small town, working for the Morristown Frackers’ owner Jules James (Amanda Peet). Over the course of Brockmire's run other notable actors, like J.K. Simmons and Disney star Tyrel Jackson Williams also got in on the action, helping to solidify the show on this list of the greatest.

Cobra Kai

Karate Kid fans were waxing on and off in anticipation back in 2018. That’s when YouTube Red first unveiled this present-day spinoff of the popular film franchise and reunited actors Ralph Macchio and William Zabka. The series finds the All Valley Karate Tournament competitors once again at odds, this time over the training of the next generation of karate kids. The series has become so beloved by nostalgic viewers and new fans alike that when YouTube stopped producing original series, Netflix took the show over, premiering Season 3 and greenlighting production on a fourth season, which is expected to air sometime in the next 12 months.

Dare Me

There are cheerleading series, and then there’s this one-season USA thriller based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Megan Abbott. Dare Me takes a dark look at a cheerleading squad and its members in a Midwestern town, tracking the crew after an unexpected and horrific crime irrevocably changes their lives. It’s a slow thriller that also highlights the competitive lives of teen cheerleaders (played by Herizen Guardiola, Marlo Kelly, and Alison Thornton), further brought to life by older cast members like Willa Fitzgerald, Colette French, Rob Heaps, and Zach Roerig.

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Eastbound and Down

Danny McBride’s 2009 take on a pro baseball pitcher who burns out as quickly as he rose was one of the greatest comedic takes on sports culture and toxic masculinity when it debuted on HBO. For four seasons we followed Kenny Powers (McBride) — abetted by his cult-like follower Steve (Steve Janowski) — as he tried to reclaim his former glory, win back his ex April (Katy Mixon), and maybe even improve on his less than all-star personality. The series was definitely cable content with its crass language and vulgar jokes, but as far as Kenny Powers followers were concerned, anyone who didn’t appreciate that tone was just fucking out.

Friday Night Lights

NBC’s 2006 football drama, based on the 2004 big screen offering, brought Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) into our lives. It also helped launch the career of younger actors like Jesse Plemons, Taylor Kitsch, and Aimee Teegarden. Over the course of five critically acclaimed seasons the show was nominated for several Emmys and became a pop culture staple, showing sports aficionados and casual watchers alike just how universally loved a football drama can be. To this day fans everywhere still use the series’ manta, “Clear eyes and full hearts” in times of difficulty, and really who can blame them? It’s a good one.

The Game

Mara Brock Akil’s 2006 Girlfriends spinoff The Game ended up lasting longer than the original series, wrapping its ninth and final season in 2015. The BET comedy followed a group of women linked by their relationships with pro football players, and starred the likes of Hosea Chanchez, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Coby Bell, Pooch Hall, and Tia Mowry-Hardrict. During its run it was one of the most successful series on the network, and despite being ignored by most of the big awards bodies, its stories of female friendship and complex relationships has won it a permanent place in our hearts.

GLOW

Netflix’s female-forward tale of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling featured a diverse and fun cast, headed up by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin. While the first season of GLOW dug into the history of the sport and its participants, over three seasons the series evolved to tell complex stories of feminism, race, representation, and coming into your own. It was a shocking day when the streaming service canned the already-renewed fourth season, citing financial concerns in the wake of the pandemic. And it was especially sad for the cast members, who had fought hard to incorporate better representation in the never-to-be-shot Season 4.

Kingdom

Blood, sweat, and tears were omnipresent in the 2014 MMA drama Kingdom, in which a retired fighter (Frank Grillo) battles to keep his gym open and his family together. The gritty and often bloody series also starred Matt Lauria, Jonathan Tucker, Kiele Sanchez, Nick Jonas, and Joanna Going, but it failed to take off on Audience Network, where it originally aired. The show was canceled just as filming on Season 3 began, making that chapter its last. When Netflix began streaming the show, it swelled in popularity, leading fans (along with the series stars) to clamor for a fourth installment that would properly wrap things up. To this day the people are still waiting.

The League

They say those who can’t do teach, and the cast of this FX comedy certainly taught us all about the ins and outs of fantasy football over its seven-season run. The series hails from husband and wife duo Jackie Marcus Schaffer and Jeff Schaffer, and features the talents of Mark Duplass, Jon Lajoie, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Katie Aselton, and Stephan Rannazzisi, along with a wild assortment of comedy all-stars. Each season is rife with inside jokes revolving around the antics-filled race to the trophy, with plenty of ill-fated adventures along the way. How this group remained friends in the end is beyond us, but seeing their relationships play out on screen was beyond entertaining.

Lights Out

This downright gritty boxing drama only lasted for one season at FX, but critics definitely went to bat for it in hopes of more. Lights Out revolves around Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany), a former heavyweight champ trying to make a comeback after failing to find an identity away from the sport. Those who did catch the show remember it for its realistic and heartbreaking portrayals, both from McCallany and co-stars Stacy Keach, Catherine McCormack, Pablo Schreiber, and Billy Brown. Sadly it failed to find a broad enough audience following its debut in 2011, and after 13 episodes FX brass gave it a permanent TKO.

Make It Or Break It

Back when Freeform was still known as ABC Family, the network dished out this tense teen drama from creator Holly Sorensen. Make It Or Break It tells the stories of Olympic hopefuls and their grueling struggles to make their sporting dreams come true, delivering meaningful drama and intense storylines in the process. Full House fans were happy to see Candace Cameron Bure in one of the leading adult roles, but it was child stars like Ayla Kell, Josie Loren, and Cassandra Screbo that really catapulted this one to new heights over its three-season run from 2009 to 2012.

Necessary Roughness

Necessary Roughness, which is completely unrelated to the 1991 big screen film of the same name, ran for three seasons after debuting in 2011. The USA series is based on real-life female psychologist Dr. Donna Dannenfelser, renamed Dani Santino (Callie Thorne) for the show, who takes a gig with the New York Hawks football team. While of course the new divorcée and single mom also has her own baggage to attend to, over the seasons she treated a slew of high-profile patients, although her main project was wide receiver T.K. King (Mehcad Brooks). While it took some viewers a while to warm up to the character’s “rough” façade, others immediately fell in love with her no-bull attitude, which earned Thorne a Golden Globe nod in 2012.

Pitch

The year that Dan Fogelman launched This Is Us, he was also responsible for bringing one of the most underrated baseball series of recent memory to life. Pitch starred Kylie Bunbury as the MLB’s first female player, a pitcher with one heck of a screwball. More importantly the series tackled subjects like females in sport, sexism, race, and a slew of other issues that made it fresh and interesting. The show also starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tim Jo, Mark Consuelos, Mo McRae, and Ali Larter, and was beloved by those who watched its all-too-short, 10-episode first season before Fox canceled it in 2016. To this day loyal fans occasionally talk about its revival, most recently last summer after Hulu added the show to its library. (Unfortunately, the series remains benched.)

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Survivor’s Remorse

Producer and NBA star LeBron James added instant cred to this Starz drama when it bowed in 2014, highlighting the struggle of young basketballer Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher). The show follows the character as he signs a pro contract and moves his family to Atlanta, where he learns what agreeing to a multi-million dollar deal actually means for himself and for those around him. Over its four-year run the series dealt with complex issues of wealth, fame, and everything in between, making it one of the most nuanced shows about success in sport to air this century.

Ted Lasso

This Apple TV+ comedy from Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence turned out to be the unexpectedly delightful and happy comedy we all needed in the dumpster-fire year that was 2020. The show revolves around a viral college football coach, Ted Lasso (Sudeikis), who is hired to head up a English Premier League soccer team. Unbeknownst to him the owner, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), is hoping he tanks the team, but before long he becomes the beacon of hope that everyone in the organization needs. Not only has Ted Lasso been a strong contender on the awards circuit, but Apple has already renewed it for Seasons 2 and 3.

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Amber Dowling (3 Articles Published)

Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelance lifestyle and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in various newspapers, magazines and websites across Canada and the United States. A previous president of the Television Critics Association and former editor-in-chief of TV Guide Canada, she’s covered all aspects of the platinum age of television and the emerging industry. Aside from binging too many shows she’s a world traveler and mom with a serious penchant for bold reds and stinky cheese.

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