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Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Updated: December 23, 4:13 PM ET
ESPN25: 100 Biggest Innovations

By Jeff Merron
Page 2

The "Big Bang" change of the past quarter century can be precisely dated: Sept. 7, 1979, when "SportsCenter" and ESPN rode the satellite uplink for the first time. Since then, scores and scores of innovations, both big and small, have created a sports world that would have been unimaginable 26 years ago.

These 100 innovations are a potpourri. We've got food, fashion, finances, and fads. Music, marketing, and Madden. Strategies, sales, and salary dumps. The Web, the wild card, and the WNBA. All were not for the good. But all were important.

Nothing scientific here, though I did try to nail down a start date (or approximate "tipping point") for each item, and I'm aware that almost all had precursors. But bloomers aren't Baggy Shorts, Babe Ruth wasn't a "salary dump," and the Bears-Spartans 1932 championship game inside Chicago Stadium wasn't Arena Football.

Complete list: 1-25 | 26-50 | 51-75 | 76-100

ESPN25: 100 BIGGEST INNOVATIONS
25
Big, composite tennis rackets
Bigger, stronger, and lighter rackets made of graphite, Kevlar, and titanium have ratcheted up serve speed, made men's tennis almost completely a power game, and brought more punch to the women's game. The serve-and-volley game, according to many experts, has almost disappeared because of racket technology.
24
The Dream Team
Pros were allowed in the Olympics before the Dream Team came along in 1992. But if you want to pinpoint one moment when the Games turned pro, it was when Larry, Magic, & MJ took the court in Barcelona.
23
European players in the NBA
Foreign players like Akeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and Manute Bol (Sudan) had been impact players in the NBA, but had played college ball in the States. In 1989, Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic led the influx of European players solidly into NBA turf.
22
Weight training in baseball
The Sporting News first took notice of Angel Brian Downing's weight-training regimen in early 1979; and within a few years, even the Wall Street Journal ("How Brian Downing Lifted Himself From Obscurity") took note that pumping iron could improve a hitter's performance. The old conventional wisdom -- that weight training would hurt baseball players -- flip-flopped almost immediately. MLB teams (the White Sox were among the first) began weight-training programs in the early 1980s.
21
Video studies
Coaches and players have been studying film forever, but videotape became cheap and ubiquitous in the early 1980s. Key date may be 1985, when the NFL approved conversion from film to videotape for coaching study. Huge digitized catalogs that allow players to call up video of particular players, situations, and games has changed the way teams prepare -- and even adjust while games are in progress.
20
eBay
Founded in September 1995, the Internet's leading auction site created an always-on market in sports tickets and collectibles. Previously hard-to-find items (like Luis Gonzalez's used chewing gum, which was actually auctioned off on another site) became readily available. But inexpensive gems became increasingly hard to come by.
19
Lipstick cam, reverse-angle cam, catcher-cam, etc.
Watch an ESPN Classic rerun of a 1970s game, and you get a couple of basic shots. A combination of new cameras and camera-mounting technologies have fundamentally changed what we see on TV. Examples: the Sky-Cam, hovering above the field, has only been around for a few years. QuesTec and other visual effects systems show trajectories, whether a pitch is "really" in the strike zone or not. ESPN started showing bat speed in the late 1990s, and pitch speed broadcasting is also a recent development. Add to this the cameras that have been inserted into race cars (this began in the early 1980s but took off over the past decade), cameras on top of backboards, cameras behind goalies in hockey, and poker's indispensible lipstick cam, and you have a slew of views unimaginable 25 years ago.
18
X Games/extreme sports
Went mainstream in 1995 with first X Games held in Rhode Island and Mount Snow, VT. Among the sports: Eco-Challenge, In-line Skating, Skateboarding, Skysurfing, Sport Climbing, and Street Luge.
17
Salary caps
The NBA instituted a cap in the 1980s, the NFL in 1994. Based on complex formulas and governed by scores of rules and regulations, the caps altered the team-player contract dance in myriad ways.
16
ESPN.com
Fifteen years ago, nobody could have imagined so much info, on so many college, pro, international, extreme, and outdoor sports so quickly and easily available in such depth. Yet, here we are. ESPN first launched online with Prodigy in March 1994, and ESPN SportZone debuted in April 1995 as the most comprehensive sports site on the Web. "Although it has only been in operation since April," wrote John M. Moran of the Hartford Courant on Nov. 2, 1995, "ESPNet SportsZone is writing the textbook on how to create a compelling -- and profitable -- business providing information over the Internet."

15
USA Today
The national newspaper began publishing in 1982, using its satellite system to deliver late box scores to East Coast readers. It expanded the traditional box scores in a big way in 1990 when it added, for hitters, info on runners left on or failed to advance, strikeouts and walks; and for pitchers, holds, blown saves and season totals for each.
14
The 3-point shot in college and pro basketball
An ABA staple that took on a new (and permanent) life when introduced in 1979-80 in the NBA and in college basketball the following season. The intended affect was to open up the floor. The result was a low-percentage shot that nonetheless gave some teams an extra tool and made a variety of comeback scenarios possible where none would have existed before.
13
The BCS
Things always get interesting when the compromise system is one that all sides hate. Evolved from the formation of the Bowl Coalition in 1992; first BCS Championship went to No. 1 Tennessee in 1998, when the Vols beat No. 2 Florida State 23-16 in a Fiesta Bowl matchup.
12
Wild card in baseball
MLB moved to the three division/wild card system in 1994; but because that was the strike season, there was no wild card team in the playoffs until 1995. Two wild card teams -- the Angels in 2002 and the Marlins in 2003 -- have become World Series champs. Fan interest has also increased as wild-card races provide lots more teams with late-season playoff hopes.
11
Fox joins in
In October 1986, the Big Three and ESPN got a major competitor: Fox Broadcasting took to the air. More sports for everyone! And higher rights fees. Which leads to more commercials. Which leads to higher prices for Air Jordans.
10
OPS and other "sabermetric" stats
Way back in the 1950s, Branch Rickey was telling the world (in Life magazine, no less) that batting average was overrated as an offensive statistic and that there were better ways to measure a player's offensive contributions. Thanks mostly to Bill James, we now have ways to evaluate players that are much better than they were 25 years ago. Old stats like on-base percentage have risen in prominence, new stats like OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) provide new, simple measurements that take both power and the ability to draw walks into account. If baseball, to paraphrase one famous quote, is an island of action surrounded by a sea of statistics, then the new stats have replenished the sea to the games' benefit.

9
Sports talk radio
WFAN opened the floodgates by becoming the first all-sports radio station on July 1, 1987.
8
Instant replay in the NFL
Officials make mistakes. Lots, if you listen to the losers. Some, if you listen to the winners (and according to the winners, they all balance out). In 1986, when the instant replay rule was introduced, the NFL came clean: Not only do officials make mistakes, it was admitting, but sometimes those mistakes are big and obvious and cost games. And the league also said: We have the technology to do something about it. With instant replay, coaches can now selectively challenge officials calls, and get a fair hearing. It's simple: Instant replay makes most games more fair. And that's a very good thing.
7
Ever-present time-and-score box/Yellow "1st & 10" line
Fox began the constant score-and-time display when it began its NFL broadcasts in 1994; some viewers complained, calling it distracting. But as you know, it caught on, and is now a permanent fixture in TV broadcasts of almost all sports events.

The "1st & 10" line, an Emmy-Award winning innovation developed by SportVision and first used by ESPN in September 1998, is a data-intensive overlay that only TV viewers can see. It portrays the accurate distance to a first down and required, initially, three specially-designed TV cameras, eight computers and several technicians.
6
March Madness expansion
In 1978, the NCAA men's basketball tournament included 32 teams in the first round. In 1979, that number grew to 40; in 1980, it expanded again, to 48; and in 1985, the field expanded to 64 teams. In 2000-01, a play-in round expanded the field to 65 teams. Along the way, the tourney grew into the most popular mega-event in sports. Single elimination, upsets galore, and all kinds of Final Four hope for teams that wouldn't have even been in the tourney before made madness into Madness.
5
Retro ballparks
Beginning with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in Baltimore in 1992, baseball caught "retro" fever. Retro parks are designed to combine the best elements of old ballparks -- seats close to the action, traditional brick-and-steel architecture, hand-operated scoreboards, and the like -- with modern amenities. The formula has worked to create some "fan-friendly" and beautiful ballparks.
4
West Coast offense
Bill Walsh had been developing his short-pass offense throughout the 1970s, but fully implemented it when he became head coach of San Francisco in 1979. And the 49ers perfected it, with Joe Montana at the helm. Over the past 25 years, it's become part of almost every team's repertoire, although its influence is waning as defenses have adjusted.
3
Performance-enhancing drugs/sophisticated drug testing
Sure, steroids have been around since the 1930s, but the sheer volume and access to the drugs has been a phenomenon of the past quarter-century. A bad one. As a result of huge drug programs in the 1980s (East Germany is the best known, and was probably the biggest, but had no monopoly on cheating), many sports achievements (including world records) are dubious at best. The spread of steroids and HGH from weightlifting to skill sports also changed the entire sports landscape. Every winning athlete is now suspect, regardless of evidence.

The code-breakers are always a step behind the code-makers, but may be gaining ground. Bottom line: It's a cat-and-mouse game that's shifted a lot of attention from the playing field to the urine sample.
2
Rotisserie/Fantasy sports
The first Rotisserie league was formed in January 1980, by Dan Okrent, Glen Waggoner and others. In the league, owners drafted players from real teams, and their compiled statistics were tallied up at the end of the real season to produce a Rotisserie League champ. Without Rotisserie, there wouldn't have been "fantasy" sports, a booming market that, some argue, has helped substantially increase interest in professional sports.
1
Air Jordans
The shoe was introduced on April 1, 1985. But it was so much more than just a shoe. MJ's personal name brand sparked a marketing revolution -- and near-riots when new models came out. Players became brands, marketing became more important than results, and the Swoosh took over the sports world.