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Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Updated: December 23, 4:16 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
50
Arena football
The Arena Football League began play in 1987 with four teams (the Pittsburgh Gladiators, Denver Dynamite, Chicago Bruisers and Washington Commandos) playing six regular-season games. By 2004, 19 teams played a slate of 16 games, and the league had a network TV deal. Even more important: Kurt Warner became proof-positive that the high-scoring whiz-bang arena version could produce a super-QB to whom the NFL game looked, well, slow.
49
Team psychiatrists/psychologists
Some psychologists specialized in helping athletes before the ESPN era, but the widespread hiring of team psychiatrists and psychologists was the result of the drug scandals of the 1980s. Sports execs, unable to figure out how to effectively deal with increasing drug use and the addictioins of prominent (and valuable) stars like Bernard King, LT, and Dennis Eckersley, hired team docs so players could have discreet, 24-7 access to the mind-menders.
48
Fieldturf
After years of bad fake turf, finally. It's a "synthetic infill surface" that feels like real grass and, many believe, is the best artificial turf around. First marketed in 1993, the big breakthroughs for the product came in 1999 when Nebraska installed it in its football stadium. NFL teams followed shortly thereafter, and the Devil Rays were the first MLB team to adopt the turf, in 2000.
47
100-pitch count
Some teams had been counting pitches before the ESPN Era, but the systematic use of a pitch count to determine how long a pitcher should stay in a game has really only developed over the past 10 years. One hundred seems to be a magic number: There's general agreement that most starters lose effectiveness at around the 100 mark, and at around 110 or 120 (depending on age and other factors) could start doing permanent damage.
46
Sports bras
In 1977, runners Hinda Miller and Lisa Lindahl sewed together a pair of jockstraps in an effort to keep their chests from jiggling while they ran. By 1978 Jogbras were being sold by Nike. But the niche undergarment didn't take off until the mid-1980s, with lycra the key component. And now, of course, only the balls bounce.
45
Body armor in baseball
Lots of fearless batters crowding the plate. Lots of hit-by-pitches. Way lots of home runs. And a total unfair advantage to the hitter. The occasional wrist or elbow pad was seen in the 1970s and 1980s; but batters coming to the plate covered in shin guards, wrist pads, hand guards and forearm guards took off in the 1990s, with Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Jason Kendall, and Craig Biggio among the early adapters. Andres Galarraga started covering himself after suffering broken hands and a broken wrist. "Sometimes, I've got so much stuff on when I come to the plate, I feel like a catcher," he said in 2000.
44
DirecTV/Sunday NFL Ticket
Founded in 1994, DirecTV made the small, pizza-size dishes ubiquitous and introduced digital satellite sports offerings to the masses. Key to the service's successful launch: cheap, easy access to the NFL's new "Sunday Ticket" offering of all NFL games.
43
Salary dump trades
Salary dump trades are a relatively new phenomenon, not really coming into their own until the mid-1990s. One of the earliest exhibits of the maneuver came in December 1995, when Reds GM Jim Bowdon traded David Wells to Baltimore for Curtis Goodwin. He admitted that the move was primarily to reduce payroll, as mandated by Marge Schott.
42
NHL introduces sudden-death OT
In 1983-84, regular-season tie games went into a single five-minute sudden-death OT; the NHL refined the system in 1999-2000 when it went to four-on-four play in OT. The latter rule opened up the ice and was designed to increase the possibility of a team breaking a deadlock. Previously, teams that remained tied at the end of the five-minute OT each got one point in the standings. With the new rule, teams that score in the OT get an extra point in the standings.
41
Japanese players to the majors
In February 1995 the Dodgers signed Hideo Nomo, a veteran pitcher for the Japanese Pacific League Kintetsu Buffaloes, as a free agent. He was the first Japanese player to jump from Japan's major leagues to MLB in the U.S. Then came Ichiro Suzuki and other stars. Japanese pros began to be widely recruited as free agents. This season, there are at least 13 Japanese major leaguers.
40
Tattoos
By 1995, the body-art boom was big enough to be covered in detail by SI. Among the most visible in the early trendsetting: Dennis Rodman, Shaq, and Mike Tyson.
39
Ballpark/arena naming rights
Used to be you could count on some continuity. But even with 20- and 30-year sponsorship deals, stadium names are for sale, and corporate busts create confusing fluidity. The Astros went from oil (Enron) to orange juice (Minute Maid) in less time than it took the California "energy crisis" to unfold.
38
Juniors eligible
In 1990, the NFL allowed college juniors and third-year sophomores to be drafted if they renounced their college eligibility. The year before, Barry Sanders became the first three-year junior to be drafted -- but he was granted an exception. An average of nine underclassmen per year have been first-round selections since the new rule went into effect.
37
Olympic triplecast
NBC's attempt to sell cable viewers a three-channel package of coverage from the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games was a huge flop, but laid the groundwork for 1,200 critically-acclaimed hours of coverage in 2004.
36
Interleague play in baseball
There's a lot of debate about whether interleague play, introduced in 1997 during the regular season, is a good or bad thing. Some nattering nabobs of negativism point to phony rivalries invented to boost interest, or to the unfairness of an unbalanced schedule. But here's what's good: Every year, for a few weeks, fans get to see players they would otherwise only see in the postseason, if at all; and they get to see them in person and at regular prices. And some matchups are instant classics -- Mets-Yankees, White Sox-Cubs, Cards-Royals, etc.
35
Big Bertha and Great Big Bertha
Callaway started marketing Big Bertha, an oversized steel driver, in 1991, and the titanium Great Big Bertha in 1995. Golf drives got longer, and golf courses had to follow suit. Monster drives are now expected from top PGA pros -- and everyday duffers.
34
Online gambling
By the fall of 1995, gamblers could place their sports bets online through virtual casinos like Internet Casinos and Sports International Ltd. Horse racing tracks and neighborhood bookies, already in decline, probably suffered the most.
33
OT tiebreakers in college football
The system -- alternating possessions at the 25, with each team having a chance to score -- was adopted by Division 1-A beginning with the 1996 bowl games. (First 1-A OT win: Toledo over Nevada, 40-37 in the Las Vegas Bowl.) It has already decided one national title, when Ohio State beat Miami 31-24 in double OT in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
32
The no-huddle offense
In the August 1985 issue of Sport magazine, Don Shula wrote about the Dolphins' use of the no-huddle at the start of the Super Bowl, and predicted that at some point it would be "a major part of a team's attack." In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Bengals and Bills proved the no-huddle's effectiveness by riding it to the Super Bowl.
31
NFL combine
A couple of small combines merged in the 1980s into the big, official, five-day tryout/medical exam the NFL holds in Indianapolis before the draft every year. Opinions vary on the tests' value; but for many prospects, the combine can result in a higher or lower draft position, and more or less money. Secondary innovation: The combine has spawned combine training camps, designed to maximize college players' abilities in the vertical jump, 40-yard-dash, and the 5-10-5.
30
Madden videogame
In 1989, Electronic Arts came out with Madden NFL Football for the Apple II, using the legendary coach/announcer's own playbook and unprecedented realism, primarily because Madden refused to lend his name to the game unless it had 11 players on each team. It remains the best-selling sports videogame ever.
29
WNBA formed
Play began in the summer of 1997, with games televised on NBC, ESPN, and Lifetime.
28
Retractable roofs
The idea of a dome is simple: to keep the weather out. The idea of a retractable roof is beautiful: to keep the bad weather out, to let the good weather in. The first dome with a working retractable roof opened in Toronto in 1989. Domes with working retractable roofs are now in Seattle, Houston, Phoenix and Milwaukee.
27
The 45-second clock in college basketball
Introduced in 1986, and reduced to 35 seconds in 1994. Stalls were history.
26
The one-inning closer
Bruce Sutter of the Cubs was probably the first one-inning specialist who came in almost exclusively when the team was ahead. He won the Cy Young Award in 1979, finishing 56 of 62 games that year. A's manager Tony La Russa refined the role when he used Dennis Eckersley only in the ninth inning with a lead. In 1988, Eckersley pitched in 60 games, but threw only 72.2 innings.