A tribute to the 15 best sports innovations since 1998
No filter. No middleman. No agent or coach approval. The platform, which was only developed in 2006, has been a megaphone for athletes, coaches, agents and fans, alike. For the first time in history, Twitter has enabled the voice of the athlete to go straight to the fan. Or, in the case of Green Bay Packer T.J. Lang, straight to the league, following his Monday Night Football “back-up” referee rant. Or, in the case of a sidelined Kobe Bryant, straight to the team, to whom he tweeted coaching advice during the Lakers opening round playoff game. Raw tweets have changed the game. Remember the photo NASCAR’s Brad Keselowski shared during a red flag at the Daytona 500 (which also cost him a $25,000)? Or how Honey Nut Cheerios was trending (don’t ask, just look it up)? Thanks to Twitter, athletes can now make their own headlines, good or bad, in 140 characters.
1st & Ten line system
Not every line system has won multiple Emmys. But the 1st & Ten, which indicates to TV viewers the distance required for a first down, is highly decorated. While the original idea (and patent) came about in 1976, the mobile yellow line didn’t make its TV debut until Sept 27, 1998 during a Bengals-Ravens game on ESPN. The result: it’s made the game easier to watch and has turned all of us into first-down-flexing Ed Hochulis. Sportvision, the company that runs the system, is also responsible for a bevy of other on-screen advancements, including the virtual ads behind home plate, baseball’s K-Zone and the GPS technology that tracks the vehicle stats in NASCAR. But they can’t all be winners. Sportvision also created the FoxTrax glowing hockey puck.
HDTV (High definition television)
Today, we can sit in our armchairs and complain about a wide receiver’s toes being out of bounds and the in the color-changing Oregon Ducks Fiesta Bowl jerseys, thanks to HD. Beyond the up-close details, the new clarity of programming has actually changed how the game is shot, from a hardware and behind-the-scenes perspective. It’s also changed how much we are willing to shell out to go to the game, considering HDTV makes us feel like we’re there. Bigger screens, better sound and now even 3D!
Online fantasy sports
Can you believe there was actually a time when fans kept fantasy league stats by hand? That was so 1990s. Now we have real-time stats, auto-drafts and more websites devoted to fantasy sports than you can count.
In 2005, fantasy sports players numbered about 9 million. Today, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) estimates that 35 million adult Americans engage in fantasy sports. That’s a huge increase in just eight years. Plus, little-known role players have a shot at becoming fantasy legends. Take T.J. Houshmandzadeh, for example, who was immortalized in a fantasy league commercial. And don’t we all wish we had fantasy guru Matthew Berry on speed dial? Not gonna lie, I’m still kicking myself for trading Drew Brees for Daunte Culpepper back in 2006. What was I thinking?
Talk about on-again off-again. Instant replay actually dates way back -- we’re talking 1955 “Hockey Night in Canada.” At the risk of knocking hockey, though, it seems that the more notable early use occurred in a 1963 Army-Navy game with Navy quarterback Roger Staubach. The NFL introduced its official adoption of the tech in 1986, but it wasn’t ready for primetime and got the curb kick in 1992. Reunited in 1999, the current system became inseparable from the NFL. Other sports have since adopted it at different levels of play. While instant replay can determine the outcome of a game, not all the calls made on the field are correct, even with the technology (just ask the Packers).
Every four years, we get the opportunity to watch more than the patriotism and athletic competition of the Olympics. We get to see the latest tech by which to judge it all. With athletes becoming more and more elite every split, milliseconds count. That’s why OMEGA, the official timekeeper of the Olympics, introduced a new electronic gun start system at the 2010 Vancouver Games (it was still receiving praise in 2012). In short, the gun fires off an electronic sound, delivered by speakers behind each runner. This eliminates the sound delay of a start pistol, which believe it or not, is a fraction slower in the most distant lane. Even taekwondo moved to an electronic scoring system in the London 2012 Games. The scoring works using sensors, placed on a contender’s socks and body, which can actually measure the impact of a blow. This allowed for far more accuracy than in the past.
If you’re a sports fan and have never been to a NASCAR race, add it to the bucket list. In addition to being able to bring your own cooler -- which deserves the honor of being on some sort of list in and of itself -- the sport is jam-packed with vehicle advancements, inside and out. FanVision is at the top of the list. Let’s face it, there are only so many right turns a race-goer can watch before getting bored (am I right?). FanVision is insurance against boredom. That’s because this hand-held controller practically puts you in the driver’s seat, giving you the option to watch multiple in-car cameras and listen to communications between the driver, crew chief and spotter, check out instant replays and more. Plus, professional-grade headphones are available, protecting your ears from all that horsepower.
Advancements in protective gear
With bigger hits than ever on the field, athletes want to be more protected. Two behind-the-scenes companies are standing out when it comes to protective gear in sports. First, there’s UnEqual Technologies, a company that soared in popularity after Michael Vick discovered it (the company also makes military gear). Today, the company outfits the Pittsburgh Steelers, including Troy Polamalu and Big Ben as well as James Harrison, who searched for better helmet padding after a helmet-to-helmet hit broke his eye socket. UnEqual Technologies’ CEO stands strong behind the technology: Rob Vito guarantees that players won’t get hurt on game day. Another company, evoSHIELD, whose spokesperson is RG3 (it’s worth noting that he wore the gear at Baylor before taking the spokesperson gig), creates gear for all 32 NFL teams. The technology is dubbed a “second skin” and doesn’t add a ton of bulk. A few notables wearing the gear include Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Colin Kaepernick.
Scoreboards have come a long way. Take the Cowboys Stadium’s scoreboard, for example, which holds the Guinness World Record for the largest high definition video display. With that kind of advancement, it’s no wonder we all catch ourselves watching the game from a scoreboard for a little too long. Especially considering how interactive they’ve become over the years. While the kiss cam was once an exciting part of a game (still on my Sports Bucket List), it’s now been surpassed by the ability to tweet to the scoreboard. And it just keeps getting better. Even this offseason we’ve seen scoreboard interactivity grow, as the NFL implemented cameras in the locker room and the scoreboard can now call for fan noise at any time with video (audio prompts must stop 20 seconds before a play).
Whether you’re reliving Michael Jordan’s best dunks from the ‘90s or sharing Blake Griffin’s posturizing highlight reel with your entire social network, YouTube has it all -- including those classic WrestleMania matches for those, like me, who need an Undertaker fix. At any moment from anywhere, fans can catch the most watched sports video, from Kyrie Irving’s Uncle Drew, which has more than 24 million views, to the Miami Heat doing their version of the Harlem Shake, which more than 44 million have watched. Yes, it’s all on YouTube, and we haven’t been able to peel our eyes off of the screen since it began in 2005.
Sports medicine technologies and Dr. James Andrews
What do Adrian Peterson, Nate Burleson and RG3 have in common? Their doctor. When celebrities have an issue they call Dr. Drew. When athletes have an issue they call Dr. James Andrews. This septuagenarian orthopedic surgeon is pioneering advancements in remedying sports injuries, and in doing so, he’s not only healing players speedily, but ensuring multi-million dollar investments/earnings. Andrews put Adrian Peterson’s left knee back together after he tore both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in December 2011. The next season, AP led the NFL in rushing and finished a mere 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s league record for 2,097 rushing yards in a single season. Besides, name another doctor that gets as much press in the league.
Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit
This high-tech, patented swimsuit relied on three years of research and NASA wind tunnel testing before it made waves in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There, 3,000 of the $550 suits were handed out to any Olympian who was interested. After launching with the tag of “the world’s fast swimsuit” it quickly become associated with a much more unpleasant phrase: “technological doping.” That’s because 23 world records were broken in the suit, and 94 percent of Olympic swimming races that were won that year involved the LZR (apparently, the fabric the LZR was made from reduced “drag,” allowing swimmers to go faster). The suit was eventually banned, but the medals had already been won. And with that, the LZR will no doubt be the one of many tech advancements that will come under controversy to change the sport.
iPads as playbooks
In the 2011-2012 season, NFL teams using the iPad as a playbook went up. That’s because iPads aren’t just more convenient, they have also changed the speed and access to film, enabling coaches and players to use a private, secure app for reviewing plays, scheduling and virtual notes. Just wait until more teams implement the optional big brother, which allows coaches to discover who is reviewing the games, when, for how long and what plays they’re actually watching.
Monitoring/data capturing devices
While these come in a bevy of brands, it’s undeniable that personal data trackers have changed the game for both the consumer and pro athlete. People can pick their pleasure -- Nike + FuelBand, Jawbone UP, the new Under Armour Armour39 -- and track distance, heart rate and calories burned in their workout or just throughout their day. Even the pros are adjusting to advanced models: Adidas’ miCoach is embedded in MLS practice jerseys to test heart rate, distance, speed, and more. Taking it up another notch is Catapult, which is a data tracking device that boasts more than 200 clients globally, including AC Milan, Wales Rugby and Dallas Cowboys.
While the carbon fiber Flex-Foot Cheetah has been on the market since 1996, it didn’t get its due spotlight until last year’s Paralympics. The Ossur blade has changed the course of track and field and put a spotlight on Paralympians and other athletes using assistive technology. This brand, in particular, is the most popular choice for sprinters, and has proven that Paralympians can compete toe-to-toe with Olympians.