Look back on the sporting universe of 25 years ago. The lights went on in Wrigley Field for the first time (but the Cubs were still under .500). Kirk Gibson hit his iconic home run off of Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series. Michael Jordan was dominating the NBA, but still couldn’t get past the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. The NFL was coming off a strike shortened season to record television ratings and fan interest. And a couple babies named Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Curry were born.
What really has changed? The lights are on a lot more at Wrigley, but the Cubs are still a 90-loss team. David Ortiz just hit an iconic home run off of Joaquin Benoit in Game 2 of the ALCS. Michael Jordan’s presence still dominates the NBA, but he still has trouble with beating the Pistons (and every other team). The NFL went through another strike, but people are watching and caring more than ever before. Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Curry have grown up and are now household names.
Although the outcomes may seem eerily similar, the ways we come to them are drastically different. Technology and media have been by far the biggest changes in the way sports permeates the national consciousness. The idea of following a team has shifted with the invention of fantasy sports and nationwide sports coverage. And the individual athlete has risen above the team itself, thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Twenty-five years may be a blip of time in the grand scheme of things, but in the modern history of sports 25 years has changed nearly everything. Let’s take a look at the key figures in the world of athletics to discover the what, how, why, and what’s next.
THE TEAM: Once upon a time, a person’s “team” was probably limited to whatever existed within a short radius of where they lived. If you were from the Boston area, for example, you had the four local teams and maybe a couple of regional squads (bring back the Whalers!). You could get news about everyone else in the paper, a magazine, or maybe that new ESPN channel if you had cable.
Oh how primitive our ancestors were! Today, geographical and technological restraints have been shattered. You could live in Honolulu and be a diehard Bills fan if you so pleased. You could watch every game with your NFL Sunday Ticket package, hear everyone’s opinion on Bleacher Report, and get round-the-clock news updates from Twitter. It’s why you see Camden Yards and Tropicana Field filled with red every time the Red Sox come to town – any team can be “your” team as long as you put in the effort.
But what if you don’t really care about any team, only a certain collection of players, who by a random chance play every different position? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could form your own team with those players – and then compete against other teams just like yours? The idea of fantasy sports is so commonplace, it is hard to believe how radical it must have been 25 years ago. Back then you would’ve been forced to track stats by newspaper every week and draft players you hardly knew about – today nearly everything is automated, and the average Joe has access to the same detailed scouting reports as the pros.
What does this mean for the “team” going forward? I think we could see a decline in local interest, as people begin to branch out. Two years ago, I noticed a swell of interest in the Brooklyn Nets sweep of my school, and it wasn’t all people from that area of the country. We as a society seem to be gravitating towards the new and flashy, including sports teams like the Nets. With the number of fantasy sports players increasing every year, whatever it means to have and follow a “team” is increasingly becoming more up to the individual – a trend you’ll see throughout this article.
THE ATHLETE: Recently, ESPN came out with an interview with LeBron James, discussing his triumphs and struggles. Reading the article, it is clear that LeBron is the perfect example of the modern athlete. No one utilizes his star power and influence better than the King – there’s a reason why even my grandparents know who he is.
Today’s athlete is much more focused on developing his or her “brand” than ever before. It produces an interesting conundrum: the athlete is promoting themselves as an individual while also becoming a commodity, something a fan could buy into. Social media has by far been the biggest factor in this. A huge percentage of NBA players are active on Twitter, and plenty of MLB and NFL athletes express themselves in 140 characters as well. Stuff like Twitter really helps the casual fan understand the athlete better. Sports Illustrated has the Twitter 100 now, a collection of the best accounts in sports. No longer is LeBron James just a member of the Miami Heat, but instead he is @KingJames, the funny, insightful basketball star.
The modern athlete is a lot more empowered when it comes to the business of sports as well. Free agency may be entering its fifth decade, but we are really starting to see the effects now. Team loyalty is nowhere near as strong as it was, and players tend to change teams a lot more. People may look at the Miami Heat and New York Knicks as examples of what happens when athletes are selfish, but I wouldn’t call it selfish at all. We forget sometimes that it’s the player’s prerogative to play where he wants, for whatever reasons – and that prerogative has only grown over the years.
If the modern athlete can successfully develop his brand and personality, the possibilities are endless. He or she could wind up in ridiculously cool commercials or buying shares in another pro sports team or even becoming best friends with Jay-Z. Even a non-superstar can become a household name today, all thanks to the social media and branding that dominates the sports world. Once again, it’s the individual who stands out in sports today.
THE MEDIA: I don’t think many of this article’s readers might be aware of this, but once upon a time there was something called a newspaper that was your only daily source for scores and information about your favorite teams. Those days are long gone, and the newspaper itself is not long from extinction. This has led to a big shift in the way the media covers sports – not to mention what the media has become.
The rise of the Internet had a huge impact on sports media in three main forms: sports-only websites, blogging, and social media. Sites like espn.com and si.com exist to eliminate the newspaper by providing the same stories and score information in a timelier and more accessible fashion. Sports blogs (especially this one) have grown exponentially, making it easier for anyone with an idea to get into the sports-writing business. And social media has created a new era of breaking news that has changed the way teams and athletes release and reveal information.
Combined, all of these aspects of sports media today have in common that anyone can join the media. What use to be an exclusive club of old white men in a press box has turned into an ocean of interesting people with interesting opinions. Look at Bill Simmons: he went from an “everyman” Boston blogger on an AOL website to the highest paid sports-writer in America with his own website. And in today’s world, anyone could be the next Bill Simmons.
THE FAN: Last but not least, we have to look at the driving force behind all of these changes – the fans. Without the fans, there would be no fantasy sports, no celebrity athletes, no thousands of sports blogs. Above all, it has been the fan that has influenced the modern sports landscape the most.
The sports supporter is no longer content with taking a passive role in their athletic followings. In a world in which the consumer now controls the producer, sports are where the consumer flexes his muscles. Fans can choose what they want to watch, what they want to buy, and who they want to care about. Not only do you have nearly limitless options of sports to follow, but everything can be streamlined, so a fan can receive only the sports and teams that they want.
Even though the team, the athlete, and the media are all going through radical changes, they still cater to the fan. Teams are constantly building new stadiums and renovating old ones to improve the fan experience. Athletes are becoming more of a presence in the community, some of them even using Twitter to interact with fans face-to-face. And if fans aren’t happy with their sports coverage, they can always just start their own. It’s the fan’s world, and should be for the time being.
In the last 25 years we’ve seen a lot of changes to the sporting universe, and we’ll probably see even more in the next 25 years. The future Clayton Kershaw’s and Stephen Curry’s are being born as we speak, the next big social media craze is being created as we instantaneously tweet, and hey, maybe even the next major sport will emerge in America (fingers still crossed for soccer!). But I believe that right now is the Golden Age of the Fan, and we should enjoy every second of it.