Has it been a decade already? Really? Damn, that didn't take long. If time doesn't actually fly, it rivals Usain Bolt's times. So much so that you can peer out at the sports landscape today and wonder, at first blush, whether anything has changed since the dawn of the millennium.
This is an article from the Dec. 28, 2009 issue
Let's see: Propelled by Kobe Bryant and coached by Phil Jackson, the Lakers are the hegemonic team in pro basketball. Derek Jeter just helped lead the Yankees to yet another World Series title. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are batting Grand Slam tennis trophies back and forth. The Colts are Super Bowl contenders thanks to the precise passing of Peyton Manning. The maddening BCS (whose critics have grown to include the nation's president) is still a blight on college football. Tiger Woods is the dominant golfer on the planet, succeeding with a singular blend of physical talent, unshakable will and raging competitive fire. Inasmuch as sports can be viewed as a single, long-running TV drama, you could be forgiven for wondering if there'd been a 10-year writers' strike.
But look more closely. Just as the U.S. is vastly changed from a decade ago—a terrorist attack, two wars, the election of the first minority president and the worst recession in generations will have that effect—so, too, has Sports Nation altered its appearance during the Aughts. Purportedly cursed since 1919, the Red Sox won the World Series not once but twice in the 2000s, which was still one fewer than the haul of Super Bowls their NFL counterparts, the Patriots, accumulated in the decade. The alliterative sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa remain bracketed together, their heroic achievements of the 1990s now tarnished by their presumed roles in a steroid scandal. Monumental records fell: gold medals in a single Olympics (eight by Michael Phelps), men's Grand Slam titles (Pete Sampras with his 14th in the third year of the decade, Roger Federer with his 15th in the last), men's Division I basketball coaching wins (902 by Bob Knight, late of, um, Texas Tech and now a member of, gulp, the media establishment). And Woods, whose image of professionalism and modesty made him the ideal corporate pitchman, finished the decade by starring in a sensationally tawdry sex scandal. (Headlines we thought we'd never see: ARTEST OFFERS ADVICE TO TIGER WOODS.)
They're playing NBA games in Oklahoma, NHL games in central Ohio but still not NFL games in Los Angeles. Brett Favre is in the Upper Midwest, but he's bedecked in Vikings purple. Boxing is clutching and grabbing for relevance, but mixed martial arts—a euphemism for "two tattooed dudes beating the bejesus out of each other in a cage"—has captivated millions, most of them in that gilded 18-to-34 demographic. A 21-year-old just won $8.5 million playing in an internationally televised ... poker tournament?
Perhaps above all, in the last 10 years it became irrefutable: Our appetite for sports is insatiable. We've long been aware that they exert a unique grip on us—that competition and superior athleticism have universal allure, that games and their players can be both a personal and a collective rallying point. But how ravenous are we? Online, on television and in person, we have never devoted more attention, time and money to sports.
While the wages of average American workers have been largely stagnant over the last 10 years, mean wages in the NFL, MLB and NBA (mainly a function of revenue, and thus our support) have gone up by a third or more. The NFL's coffers from television alone exceed $3 billion annually. CBS agreed to pay the NCAA $6 billion over 11 years for the rights to televise March Madness, and ESPN is likely to bid more than that when the contract next comes due. Each SEC school pockets nearly $5 million a year from football TV revenue alone. Even in the teeth of a recession, the average Major League Baseball game in 2009 drew 30,330 fans, up 4% from 1999. Roughly 20 million Americans—90% male—compete in online fantasy leagues, a billion-dollar industry.
Expressed another way: If you'd invested $25 in a U.S. treasury EE bond on Jan. 1, 2000, it would be worth $36.10 today. The same $25 invested in the S&P would be worth $22.45 today. (We won't even talk about real estate.) Had you been fortunate enough to invest that $1 in an index fund that tracked the value of pro sports teams, your money would have doubled or tripled. Go ahead and mock the lackluster Redskins, but name another property that, according to Forbes, was valued at $741 million in 2000 and is $1.6 billion today.
Who woulda thunk it? Actually, we woulda. Or we coulda. Changes in sports are less seismic occurrences than they are accelerations of existing conditions. Back to the TV analogy: The prior episodes tell us plenty about where the plotlines are headed. At the start of the decade we knew, for instance, that the wheels of globalization were starting to spin faster, that the world was shrinking and that international borders were losing significance. Just consider the first issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 2000, which featured stories on the Mavericks' German forward and more European-born NHL players than you could shake a curved stick at.
In retrospect it's not so surprising that half the MVP awards the NBA dispensed during the decade went to players born outside the U.S. Or that there would be more Europeans than Americans in the NHL. Or that right now there are only two U.S. players, the aforementioned Williams sisters, ranked in the WTA's top 20. It's not that they've stopped playing basketball or hockey or tennis in the U.S.; it's that they play these sports with increasing proficiency in other countries too. Not to mention the boundaries for ownership that have been broken: Russian plutocrats and a Wal-Mart heir purchasing clubs in the Premier League, and another Russian billionaire on the verge of buying a team in the NBA.
Likewise, in the late '90s baseball players began going yard with a frequency that defied statistical norms. It was also then that McGwire's bottle of the steroid hormone and alleged muscle-building supplement androstenedione—then permissible under baseball rules—came to our attention. The combination of beefed-up numbers and bulked-up swingers foretold the exposure of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, a scandal that cast a cloud over the decade. So that when Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron's hallowed record for career home runs, the occasion was met with the enthusiasm that attends the passing of a kidney stone.
By Y2K, ESPN was already establishing more platforms than Grand Central Station. Who's surprised that today the network is a multitentacled media behemoth, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader, capable of paying more than $1 billion per season for Monday Night Football alone? Even the success of the Red Sox was not altogether shocking. A decade ago it was becoming clear that the most successful teams were defined by: a) swollen revenue that would enable the signing of pricey free agents; and b) an appreciation for sabermetrics—crassly: analytics over intuition—in assessing talent. Boston was already a financially successful franchise, flush with an avid fan base, abundant corporate support and a lucrative regional television deal, and thus able to sign, say, Manny Ramirez from the small-market Indians. When the Sox staffed their front office with math whizzes the likes of Bill James—who cared less about RBIs than about OPS or WHIP in high-leverage situations—the odds of reversing the curse improved dramatically.
So what do the next 10 years hold for sports? The past is prologue: To achieve 2020 vision, just consider the trends afoot now and spin them forward.
The intersection between technology and sports is a busy one today; the traffic will only thicken. We'll continue to watch sports on television, savoring the benefits of ever-improving hi-def quality, ever-expanding screens and an ever-growing cable universe. We may even get to play producer, zooming in on our favorite players and accessing replays at our own discretion. And because sports make for "appointment television"—who wants to watch Sunday Night Football on DVR on Monday?—they're at least somewhat immune from the pressures besetting other forms of programming. Yet we'll also consume sports in other ways: through streaming online video, over our phones and through other handheld devices.
Will this make fans less inclined to go to games? On the one hand there's never been more appeal to watching them at home, where there's a clear view, loads of legroom and no getting soaked by either $150 ticket prices or your neighbor's overpriced beer. Yet, attending a live event will always hold appeal. Like concerts and theater, to many there will never be a substitute for being there. And don't overlook the corporate hospitality component: Banks and law firms and other businesses leasing those expensive suites won't be taking clients to their living rooms, no matter how large or how sharp the picture on the TV.
Plus, venues can also take advantage of emerging technology. Already some teams have pricing schemes that track demand. What's to prevent baseball teams from sending a text to fans after the second inning to alert them: WE HAVE $5 TICKETS AVAILABLE. The game-day experience is likely to become more interactive. Already, for an obscene amount of money, select Yankees fans can stand on the field to watch batting practice, meet the players and even sit in the dugout before games. And teams will continue to find creative ways to leverage their athlete-employees. Some Knicks fans who were uncertain about renewing their season tickets were recently offered a "three-hour personal appearance by a player" as inducement.
More so than ever leagues will do everything short of looking behind seats to find extra revenue. This elicits groans from fans, but really, who can blame the owners? They have a property; they want to maximize its value. And other companies want to pay to be associated with the feeling of community that sports teams engender. Why not let them? And as we've become slowly desensitized to Pepsi Dancers, pitching changes brought to us by airlines, and credit card companies sponsoring scoreboard dot races, it's probably inevitable that player uniforms, the last sacred surface area, will bear commercial logos. Already this year teams in the NFL (on training camp jerseys) and the WNBA sported uniform ads. Hey, they do it in European soccer, and after some initial outcry, no one much minds. And surely by decade's end more teams will emulate MLS's New York Red Bulls and name themselves after the owner's product.
Which reminds us: If you're looking for a growth stock, consider soccer. Yes, it's already the world's most popular sport. And yes, we've heard about the coming "soccer boom," the same way we heard about the Y2K Armageddon and the Segway Revolution. But it's hard to dismiss the numbers. Across the globe more fans will watch the World Cup this summer than the Vancouver Olympics, Super Bowl XLIV and the 2010 World Series combined. Think soccer won't play in the U.S.? Last month's MLS Cup drew 46,000 fans for a clash pitting Real Salt Lake against the L.A. Galaxy. And the game was played in Seattle.
If you're looking for a league to short, consider the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman's Sun Belt strategy—putting franchises in "nontraditional" hockey markets—has been an abject failure. Teams in Phoenix, Nashville and South Florida have struggled to draw fans, and there is no meaningful television revenue to cushion the losses. Don't be surprised if the NHL, like ice in the South, melts a bit, either by contracting or even implementing four-on-four hockey, which would not only reduce payroll but also goose scoring.
Looking to buy, sell or hold a specific team this coming decade? Here's a coarse method: Consider the size of the market, then bet on teams in the bigger precincts and bet against those from the smaller ones. Exceptions will arise—How about those Colts? Or those Knicks?—but it will be increasingly hard for the smaller outposts, especially with modest local corporate support, to field competitive teams. Thanks to revenue sharing, MLB's Pirates and the NFL's Jaguars may stay afloat, but as the rules of engagement currently read, they simply can't afford the best talent. Talk of aligning divisions not by geography but by the size of the team's payroll is increasingly likely. The Twins looked sharp winning the AL Parsimony, Vin, but they'll be tested by the Yankees, the AL Profligate champs.
Specific players to watch? Your guess is generally as good as the experts'. You know, the folks who, a decade ago, were declaring Kerry Wood the next Nolan Ryan while ignoring Maple Woods Community College first baseman Albert Pujols. Or the NFL execs who picked a half-dozen quarterbacks ahead of Tom Brady in the 2000 NFL draft. The unpredictability, the variables, the unlikely casting makes it all so fun. Heads: Peyton Manning. Tails: Ryan Leaf.
Still, Jimmie Johnson deserves attention: NASCAR's best driver of the last decade could well be the best driver of the next. At 34, with four Cup titles already in his trunk, he's barely in his prime; don't be shocked if by 2020 he's the first driver to win more than seven championships. By then Joe Mauer may be known as the best-hitting catcher baseball has ever seen, Adrian Peterson as the NFL's alltime leading rusher and Alexander Ovechkin as the producer of more goose-bump-raising highlight clips than any scorer in NHL history.
But if you were going to invest in one athlete for the next decade, is there a better choice than LeBron James LLC? James is already the NBA's reigning MVP, and at age 24 he is just entering what are usually a basketball player's most productive years. A surpassing athlete, he's big, strong, committed and has been blessed with a uniquely durable physique. Starting this summer he'll be able to handpick where he plays. He drips with charisma and has perfected the increasingly rare feat of avoiding major scandal or embarrassment. Of course, we once thought that about Woods too. But with Tiger's spectacular fall from grace, LeBron will be the brightest star in the sports cosmos.
Will we finally see a major American sports league establish a franchise overseas? The NBA has been leading the charge, even commissioning a partner, the arena-owning conglomerate AEG, to find suitable places to play in China. The challenges are abundant: exchange rates, security issues, time zones and the escalating price of fuel. Will teams eagerly split television revenue paid by American networks with that franchise in Munich or Barcelona? But never mind all that. International fan interest in the NBA and the NHL has been growing steadily, and eventually the natives will grow restless. Enough with the long-distance rooting—we want a team of our own! Especially with improving international talent, it's easy to envision, say, an NBA European division in 2020.
History (and behavioral economics) tells us that so long as the rewards remain great and the risks remain relatively low, the use of performance-enhancing drugs will be an issue throughout sports. In the ongoing game of whack-a-mole, once the cheaters get clobbered—say, through effective and cheaper tests for human growth hormone, the blood-boosting hormone EPO or the kind of designer steroids that prevented Marion Jones from ever having a positive result—others simply will pop up somewhere else. The next frontier for performance enhancement? Personal genetics. After learning how various genes express themselves in cells and tissues, athletes will seek an unfair advantage by introducing synthetic genes. An example: one that would allow the muscles to grow more than they otherwise would.
The good news: Antidoping investigators, using similar technology, should be able to obtain a "genetic passport" for athletes—basically a chip imprinted with their genetic profile—and monitor changes that would indicate the use of synthetic genes or drugs. Ultimately, though, the antidoping revolution will be triggered less by science than by legislation. Already the feds are tightening loopholes and cracking down on companies that traffic in "supplements" that are more like designer steroids. Whether U.S. legislation affects the "wild, wild East," as the head of USADA, Travis Tygart, calls Asia, is another matter.
Personal genetics will also figure prominently in athlete training. Even now companies offer nutritional plans tailored to your genetics. Another enterprising outfit will perform extensive genetic tests on 10-year-olds so parents can place their kids in sports accordingly. One wonders, if this test had existed a generation ago, for which NFL team would LeBron be playing linebacker? And for which orchestra would two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum be playing cello?
With concussions and head trauma such a hot-button topic, expect football and hockey players to wear better helmets. Several equipment companies already sell a helmet with embedded sensors that can determine the location and severity of a head injury. And, as long as we're protecting athletes, expect burgeoning college revenue to amplify calls for NCAA football and basketball players to be compensated, if not in cash than in another form.
No matter how carefully you read the clues, though, divination is a dicey business. Will the Cubs follow the Red Sox and win a World Series? Will James and/or Bryant overtake Michael Jordan as the Greatest Basketball Player Ever? Or will it be a Baby Shaq? (O'Neal's oldest sons, Myles and Shareef, will be college age by the end of the '10s.) Will Sidney Crosby save hockey? Will a horse ever again win the Triple Crown? With more stringent drug testing, will we ever see another player jack 70 homers in a season? Will a golfer rival Woods? Will anyone stand up to the BCS bullies?
Who knows? But this we can say with virtual certitude: We'll all sure as hell be watching.
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Get more from SI writers on the best and worst of the decade, and photo galleries of the top moments, at SI.com/decade
The Main Events
Weightiest moments of the Aughts
Dale Earnhardt's death
The Intimidator's passing at age 49 after a wreck at the '01 Daytona 500 made him a NASCAR icon—and led to much-needed safety reforms.
The Jeter Flip
Game 3 of the '01 ALDS: Derek Jeter's rescue of an errant relay preserved a Yankees' win. A signature play by an athletic and cerebral star.
In '02 Tom Brady (above), trailing the Raiders in his first playoff game, got a fourth-quarter fumble back when it was ruled an incomplete pass. New England rallied, and a dynasty was born.
The Curse Reverses
Next year finally came for the Red Sox in '04: their first World Series win since 1918. They did it in style, too, coming back from a 3--0 ALCS deficit against the hated Yankees.
In a decade full of spectacular shots by Tiger Woods, one rises above the rest: his rolling, sloping, mind-boggling chip on 16 at the '05 Masters.
The '06 Kentucky Derby champ fractured a leg in the Preakness, breaking the hearts of handicappers and casual fans.
Boise State's Fiesta
Boise State upset Oklahoma in the '07 Fiesta Bowl (page 58), the decade's most riveting bowl game.
Thanks to David Tyree's against-the-helmet grab in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants beat the Patriots in the NFL's greatest upset.
Phelps's Gold Mine
With the world watching, Michael Phelps won eight swimming golds at the '08 Olympics—an electrifying display under pressure.
No one outdid Phelps at the '08 Games, but Usain Bolt came close. He sprinted to three golds and two world records.
The Top Teams
In the 2000s, the champs among champs
New England set a record for points (589) and was the first undefeated regular-season team of the 16-game era. Forget the Super Bowl loss to the Giants: The 18--1 Pats still won more games than the 1972 Dolphins (17--0).
Dominant regular season? Check. Postseason? Check. Nailing both isn't as easy as you think: The '09 Yanks were the only team of the decade to win 100 games and the World Series.
The Hurricanes went 12--0, won the national championship and outscored opponents 512--117. They also flooded the NFL with talent: This team produced 16 first-round picks and 10 future Pro Bowl players.
Led by four pals—Joakim Noah (above), Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taureen Green—who returned after winning it all in 2006, the Gators were the first repeat champs in 15 years. It was no fluke: They were the best shooting team (52.6%) of the decade.
Red Wings 2001--02
They had 116 points and won the Stanley Cup, but that doesn't describe Detroit's talent. How deep were the Wings? They had two future Hall of Famers—Igor Larionov and Luc Robitaille—on the fourth line.
The middle title of Shaq's and Kobe's threepeat was the best. L.A. went a record 15--1 in the eternal postseason; the lone loss came to the 76ers in Game 1 of the Finals, when league MVP Allen Iverson erupted for 48.
Their actions drew scorn, their names live in infamy
He's talented, but Artest is best-known for charging into the stands in Detroit in 2004 to fight a fan. The Malice at the Palace was the decade's ugliest fan-athlete confrontation.
The self-absorbed Bonds was no fan favorite when the decade dawned. Later, allegations of steroid use sealed his status as a star no one outside of San Francisco could love.
In 2004 the Canucks winger sucker-punched Colorado's Steve Moore, sending him face-first onto the ice. Moore suffered a career-ending neck injury. Bertuzzi became the face of hockey's dirtiest impulses.
The crooked NBA ref—he bet on games and fed information to gamblers—didn't just disgrace himself, he raised questions about the integrity of the game. Fans will never again see a questionable whistle the same way.
The hater of his own quarterbacks (he squabbled with Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo) and adorer of himself (he trademarked the phrase "I love me some me!") thrived on being disliked. Most fans—and many teammates—obliged him.
His racist, homophobic ranting in the last SI issue of the 1990s made Rocker persona non grata in New York. It also hastened the end of his career—the closer was gone by '04—and turned him into an ugly symbol of insensitivity.
The Best Athletes
A tennis star who made Grand Slam victories a habit is the cream of an elite crop
1. Roger Federer
Fifteen Grand Slam titles; ranked No. 1 for a record 237 consecutive weeks
2. Tiger Woods
Twelve major championships; first athlete with $1 billion in earnings
3. Lance Armstrong
(above) Winner of decade's first six Tours de France
4. Michael Phelps
With 14 gold medals, the most decorated Olympian ever
5. Kobe Bryant
Four NBA titles and the leading scorer of the 2000s
6. Albert Pujols
Only big leaguer ever with 30 home runs in each of first nine seasons
7. Tom Brady
Three Super Bowl victories, and the NFL single-season record for TD passes (50)
8. Usain Bolt
First male to hold Olympic and world titles in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints simultaneously
9. Serena Williams
Eleven Grand Slam singles titles; five tenures as world No. 1
10. Jimmie Johnson
Only NASCAR driver with four straight Cup championships
Who will dominate the '10s? These players are on the cusp of stardom
The Baylor freshman and 6'8" center is making dunks a staple of women's highlights; Tennessee coach Pat Summitt already says she will be "one of the best inside players ever."
Juan Martin del Potro
At age 20 the world's fifth-ranked player took down Federer to win the '09 U.S. Open, his first of what figures to be many Grand Slam titles.
This year, at 20, he tied for third at the PGA Championship and became only the second golfer to crack the world top 10 before turning 21.
A 100-mph fastball and a record contract ($15.1 million) for a No. 1 draft pick—he's the 21-year-old ace of the future for the Nationals.
A running back like his dad, NFL star Fred Taylor, the 16-year-old has colleges drooling; allowed to play high school ball a year early, Kevin was a Florida all-stater as an eighth-grader.