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What a Time To Be Alive: 9 Ways Technology Changed Sports Forever

by: Howard Cosmell On  Friday, December 10, 2010


Sports, despite being steeped in tradition, are certainly not exempt from the forward march of technology. Every day, people are designing racquets that hit harder, shoes that prevent injury, and sports drinks that fuel more. However, these constant, but small innovations are often punctuated by larger ones that are so massive, we don’t even recall what sports were like before them. Some are sports specific, and some are innovations that changed the world altogether, sports included. Here are 9 technological innovations that changed the landscape of individual sports or athletics in general.

9.The 1st Down Line
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Putting a yellow line demonstrating how far the offense has to go to get a first down may not be the most profound impact on sports, but one thing is certain: No one’s going back to the old way of doing things. Rather than watch a play and guess where the player will need to end up to move the chains, the spectator now has a better sense of the required distance than the players and coaches do.

While the impact may seem drastic for such a simple mechanism, rest assured that the 1st & Ten system is anything but simple. Though the process has been streamlined a little in recent years, the undertaking initially require the following: Two equipment vans, four dedicated operators, a three-dimensional map of every different field in the NFL, entering in the “color palette” of the field, and seven computers. You’d think with that setup, the 1st & Ten system would achieve world piece, but changing the way we watch football is a close second.

8. Electronic Line Judge
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While the computerized first down line may change the way we watch football, it trails tennis’ electronic line judge in importance, if only because the electronic line judge is affecting the outcome of matches regularly. Remarkably enough, iterations of the current system have been used in tennis since 1974. Initially, long Mylar strips were set under the boundaries of the court. These strips were pressure sensitive and could tell the difference between a foot and a ball by the type of impact each made.

When even the mediocre players are clocking in serves at over 100 mph, it was pretty clear that the line judges would need some objective assistance to determine if a serve or slam fell in or out of bounds. Fortunately, with the technology that exists now, players can hit the ball harder and harder, always knowing that the Mylar strips don’t lie.

7. Instant Replay
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So #9 changed the way we watched a game, and #8 changed the way rules were enforced. Well, #7, instant replay, does both to an extent not seen by almost any other technological innovation in years. It’s easy to take instant replay for granted, as it has been a pillar of sports television for most of our lifetimes, but before there was tape, there was no instant replay. In fact, instant replay was still so novel in 1963 that the announcer had to assure the viewership that the team did not score again. Seems pretty quaint these days.

As replay got more and more accessible and reliable during television broadcasts, it began to be used by officials in determining a ruling on unclear plays. While official replay still slows the game down a fair amount, it’s a trade-off that most fans and players are willing to make to get to the truth.

6. The Airplane
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While the airplane is by no means an athletic innovation, the facilitation that airplanes provided changed the dynamic of sports scheduling forever. With the advent of air travel, not only could teams play more often, but play geographically distant teams that were until that point, unfeasible. Without air travel, the University of Hawaii wouldn’t have sports and there wouldn’t be a Pro Bowl. Ok, no one would really care about either of those scenarios, but could you imagine a 162-game baseball schedule if the players had to travel by train? While the airplane has myriad impacts in our culture, without its presence in sports, pro teams would look more like rural high schools than the jetsetters they are today.

5. Stadium Lights
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Electric lighting hasn’t been around as long as we assume it has. Until it was, sports could not be played in primetime, and even sports indoors at any time was a tricky proposition. However, once stadium lights were introduced, not everyone was quick to adopt the primetime schedule. The authorities in most sports saw night games as a gimmick and opted to continue the day games, despite the clear scheduling conflicts that they posed. Though the first baseball night game was played in 1935, the Chicago Cubs famously held out until 1988. Without stadium lights, we’d all be cutting work and class to go to baseball games. Which actually doesn’t sound so bad. Damn you, technology.

4. Fantasy Sports
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While the early rotisserie leagues of the late 70’s and 80’s were hardly a “technological innovation”, they remained a cult (and kinda dorky) phenomenon until the systems were in place that a casual player wouldn’t have to manually scour and tally every statistic. Enter the internet. The internet and fantasy sports websites do all the heavy lifting for fantasy enthusiasts, leaving the casual players more time to do something else, and the intense players more time to focus on strategy. To give one an idea of exactly how important fantasy sports have become, they need only examine the financials. Fantasy sports account for $4.0 billion in revenue every year. What does the NBA pull in per year? $4.0 billion.

3. The Dome
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The dome has been a blessing and a curse for professional sports. It enables Vikings fans to attend playoff games without having to worry about their fingers turning black and falling off, which is good, but also led to the glut of eyesore, utilitarian domes that popped up in the 1970’s. The Astrodome. The Superdome. The Kingdome. The Metrodome. Horrible names for horrible places. The ability to construct such large covered structures meant that there was no geographical locale that couldn’t be used for most any sport. Thankfully, most new stadiums are hybrids of open-air venues and domes, allowing fans to bask in the more temperate weather and hide from the more hostile. As long as no one is including the suffix “-dome” in the name of the building, I think we’ll be ok.

2. Twitter
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The newest innovation on this list is, for obvious reasons, the most uncertain. We’ve seen the profound impact twitter has had in many facets of our culture, not the least of which is sports. Teams disseminate information, fans interact with each other and the players. And the players, for better or worse, can speak directly to their fans with no filter. It’s practical and endearing when it works like it’s supposed to, and a beautiful disaster when it doesn’t. When an innovation enables Ron Artest to get thousands of people to shut down Santa Monica Blvd. because he wants to have an impromptu birthday party at an ice cream parlor, that innovation must be respected and feared. Base on its impact so far, I think it’s unlikely that Twitter won’t profoundly impact the sense of community that surround teams and fans for years to come. All in tiny, 140-character packages.

1. Cable/Satellite TV
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Since its inception, cable television has meant more choices, which clearly benefit the end user and the leagues that are providing the entertainment. However, before cable television, if you were a Cleveland Browns fan living in Salt Lake City, there is a pretty strong chance that you would never see your team play a full game, instead subsisting on magazine articles and whatever highlights you are fed. (In the case of the Browns, highlights are often few and far between.) A team’s fan base is no long local, but national, and in many instances, international. Couple that phenomenon with the advent of the Sunday Ticket-like sports packages, and you’ve got a concept that nurtures the growth of a sports team’s fan base to every corner of the world.




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