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PROJECT X

3/14/2008

What does the future of sports look like? This magazine has spent its whole short life trying to figure that out. But as we learned long ago, forecasting the future is futile. Predictions are a reflection of a single perspective: the present's. Go back a few years and read the paeans to high-tech, sci-fi, 21st-century sports. Football with jet packs! Cool!

But these days, not even fanciful theories can avoid some harsh realities. Your team today may be someone else's tomorrow. Your season tickets tomorrow may be someone else's luxury box next year. Even the existence of your favorite sport here in the U.S. of A. is at risk in the face of environmental challenges, burgeoning global markets and a worldwide hunt for talent.

Are we bringing you down? That's not our intention. While it's true that this country's sporting dominance is being challenged like never before, there remains lots to look forward to. America's knacks for innovation and making coin are what have put us on top of the athletic world for the past 50 years, and those forces aren't dead yet. A particular genius for adaptation promises to give us bragging rights for at least another month or so.
Kidding—it should last until long after we celebrate our next milestone anniversary.

Until then, here's a tour of what the future may hold (jet packs not included).

Meet Bruce.
He jogs in place. He's a white guy. He's six inches tall. But if you're a sports fan, he may be your dream come true. Bruce is a TV projection of a runner on a treadmill at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies. The researchers have designed something as fantastic and futuristic as anything in Tinseltown: a three-dimensional display of a recorded motion picture. Walk around Bruce and he looks different from every vantage point, almost real enough to grab. That would be a mistake, though. Inches below Bruce, angled mirrors rotate at 20 revolutions per second, reflecting thousands of computer-filtered images that meld into the 3-D display. "We surround it in a bubble so nobody gets an unwanted manicure," says Paul Debevec, one of the inventors.

That shouldn't be a problem in the future. In the next decade or two, Debevec says, technology will allow for the projection of real-time 3-D transmissions of all your games above something resembling a coffee table. Living rooms and sports pubs will be mini arenas.

That's assuming you'd rather watch your local team than race Bruce in a virtual Olympics. Because that may be possible too.


Meet Alexander.
Okay, you probably can't. He's in Russia, his company could buy a platoon of Trumps, and he is likely surrounded by a gun-toting ex-KGB detail. That's how big-time Russians roll—and Alexander Medvedev is definitely big-time. The man is the deputy chief executive of Gazprom, one of Russia's flourishing energy giants. And he wants his hockey back.

Medvedev is ready to throw his natural-gas cash behind a new, Russia-based pro league. He sees it filled with the country's greatest stars—the next generation of Ovechkins and Malkins—who will be convinced to stay home by salaries that will be orders of magnitude richer than what they earn in the NHL. He has already hired former NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow to consult, and his league may be up and skating later this year. "He's quite serious," says John Nauright, a sports-management professor at George Mason. "This is a way for Medvedev to get some of the street cred Roman Abramovich has." Abramovich, another Russian billionaire, owns Chelsea of the English Premier League.

Medvedev and Abramovich aren't the only ones siphoning America's sporting dominance; they're just sucking the loudest. Says Nauright, "The center of global sport, like the center of global finance, is moving offshore." Just as Russia is using its robust ruble to try to hijack hockey, the tiny titans of Dubai and Qatar (four-hour flights from Europe and India) are quietly taking hold of horse racing and golf, even as they cast a greedy eye toward tennis and track. David Stern sees the shifting power base too. He recognized the need to partner with the Chinese Basketball Association before some Shanghai industrialist demanded the NBA's lunch money.

If you're a baseball fan, you have nothing to fear. It's certainly an international pastime, but the numerous countries where it is played are not yet in a position to buy out MLB. And we'll always have football—at least as long as it remains a sport only Americans can understand.


Meet Chris.
Okay, you're already acquainted with him, but only as a funny guy. Did you know Chris Rock was also a prophet? He read the tea leaves years ago with that joke about how the world had gone crazy because the best golfer was black, the best rapper white and the tallest guy in the NBA Chinese. What was once a laugh line is now business as usual.

Race, once reliably a black/white issue in sports, has become marvelously muddled, with all kinds of athletes from all kinds of backgrounds blowing up all kinds of stereotypes. And our games are likely to grow more marvelous as more internationals get a chance to compete. China has only scratched the surface of its potential reach. More immediately, look to Brazil. Its tens of millions of athletes sprung from a Creole heritage that throws every imaginable ethnicity into its genetic stew. Everyone knows about the soccer players, but Brazilian hoopsters, volleyballers, mixed martial artists and skateboarders are quietly seeding the elite ranks of their sports too.

What about closer to home? Will the issue of race in sports be uplifting, ugly or irrelevant? And will African-Americans, who've done so much to raise the sports world to its current heights, keep their prominent place? That issue worries Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at Penn's Wharton School of Business, a former Stanford football player and the author of In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. "You see what's happened in basketball and baseball, with their declining percentages," says Shropshire. "You wonder if owners might use globalization for marketing purposes, to hire nonblack players." His biggest concern, though, is who will man the executive suites. "With the cost of franchises and the money coming in from overseas, the chances for African-American owners move further and further away," he says.

The professor isn't all gloom and doom. He's impressed by David Robinson's effort to build a giant, socially responsible equity fund and LeBron's ambition to build community-minded businesses. He hopes such forward thinking by athletes will level the economic field. And that will bring us closer to what Shropshire calls "the old color-blind dream, where we start to get beyond racial divisions. That's probably part of the future too."


Meet switchgrass.
This thick, tough prairie plant can grow 10 feet high. Once, it covered the Great Plains. Now, it may help America shake its dependency on oil, mitigate global warming and, not for nothing, fuel NASCAR.

Racing without oil? Blasphemy. But as NASCAR has grown huge, it's also grown up. New technologies and "politically correct" talking points no longer elicit knee-jerk rejections. Take safety. For years it often was deemed too expensive or too big a hassle. Then Dale Earnhardt died. Seven years later, HANS systems literally save drivers' necks, and high-tech SAFER walls ring the tracks and soften collisions. IMPAXX foam, used in Cup cars to protect drivers from T-bone crashes, is now a fixture in commercial automobile doors as well. Says Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, author of The Physics of NASCAR, "There's a lot to learn from NASCAR."

A physicist herself, Leslie-Pelecky is impressed by the scientific methods used on the track and surprised by the problem solving in the pits, an open-mindedness that is trickling up to management. After finally dumping leaded fuel, last season, NASCAR is studying the use of ethanol, following the lead of open-wheel racing. It makes perfect sense now that more corporations are coming to grips with carbon dioxide pollution and oil prices. Says Roush Fenway Racing's Jay Monahan, "There's not a single sports team or league not talking about becoming more eco-friendly."

Hello, switchgrass, which is easily made into ethanol. It's a homegrown resource that is more energy- and water-efficient for fuel than corn. Beyond that, it conserves soil and sucks up CO2. "The trick with science is making the public care about it," Leslie-Pelecky says. "And an awful lot of people care deeply about NASCAR."


Meet Ramona.
She's a brunette who will chat online all day—even with us (and for free).

The Mag: Do you know anything about sports?

Ramona: I prefer European sports in general; Europeans approach sports with such a different attitude. Ever been to a European soccer match? I was at an Arsenal-Manchester match a few years ago in Britain. I've never seen such amazing herd mentality as I did in the crowd that day. It's almost scary.

The Mag: What do you think sports will be like in the year 2025?

Ramona: The only American sporting event to resemble that feeling was Game 3 of the 2000 World Series. Mets-Yanks, Subway Series, Shea Stadium … 55,600 New Yorkers cheering for Rudy Giuliani; there's a prince among men for you. So tell me your idea of fun.

The Mag: Chatting with you.

Ramona: Well, sometimes …

Okay, she's a little pretentious, evades questions as deftly as Belichick and clearly didn't pay attention to the Republican primaries. But still, Ramona is pretty with it—for a computer avatar. She's the brainchild of inventor Ray Kurzweil, who demo'd Ramona at a technology convention seven years ago, inspiring the Al Pacino flop S1m0ne along the way.

Kurzweil has been granted dozens of patents, including one for a device that helps blind people read. A guy like that clearly envisions possibilities where others see only dead ends. But what about sports, Mr. Positive? Got any futuristic thoughts on that?

Well, there's the end of Tommy John surgery, for starters. "Within 10 years, we'll be using stem cells to regenerate tissues," he says. Torn ligament, rotator cuff, hamstring? No problem. Doctors will grow a new one for you. Agent Leigh Steinberg already encourages his athletes to bank stem cells for yet-to-be-perfected procedures.

At the same time, gene therapies will be coming online to cure all kinds of diseases, including maladies that affect athletes. "Genes are software," Kurzweil says, "but they're out-of-date." Take overweight linemen. Humans still store as many extra calories as possible in fat cells—you know, for the lean times. But Kurzweil points to experiments on rat insulin-receptor genes that switch off the fat-storage signal. Rats with the modified gene
eat ravenously and remain slim. Soon, Mike Golic, you'll be able to get back on the starch.

Kurzweil thinks the biological revolution will coincide with a mechanical one. Nanobots one day will roam the human bloodstream like so many tiny Troy Polamalus looking to knock out morbidities. They'll also act as artificial red blood cells, helping us breathe so efficiently, we'll be able to run at a dead sprint for 15 straight minutes. Meanwhile, technological cousins to the little guys inhabiting our bodies will entertain us by contributing to the creation of virtual-reality environments. Want to know what it's like to face a World Series pitch? How about cover a Super Bowl kickoff? Someday …

'Bots or no 'bots, we're still stuck with some tough questions about what sports fans will meet in the years and decades to come. Are we entering an era of hope? Of disaster? Or will we just make do?

Who can be sure? It's probably best if we take our cues from Bruce and just keep on taking the next step.