Thursday, November 1, 2007

Decade's most influential people in sports

By Rick Morris

As mentioned there, my companion post about the most influential people in the world during the decade to date was actually inspired by a question I posed to myself about the most influential in sports this decade. I knew who I would slot #1, and it's a name most would never associate with this list in any capacity, but I frankly don't think people can question my logic.

As with the other list, what is most important is impact for today and the future on the sports world. Honorable mention goes to Bill Belichick (most successful coach/personnel figure of the decade), Peyton Manning (king of endorsements), Barry Bonds (most divisive and thought-provoking person of the decade). With the exception of Bonds (who is one of the figures causing such a public backlash to steroids and HGH that baseball might be forced to clean itself), however, none of them have caused significant, long-term changes to the sports landscape.

Working our way up the list ...

5. Dana White. The UFC president has been on an incredible roll of late, acquiring the assets of his main rival Pride in a deal he compared, only half-ridiculously, to the AFL-NFL merger. Also, in 2006, his organization hired away Marc Ratner, the well-respected executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. This was seen, correctly, as a body blow to what has remained of the credibility of boxing. Almost all of the ills of boxing -- from the lack of a consistent TV presence to the diminishing ability to deliver "dream fights" to the proliferation of too many meaningless titles -- have been eliminated by the kingpin of MMA. He has also cleaned up the sport, instituting needed safety rules and bringing thus bringing needed respectability. In terms of entertainment impact, the UFC has supplanted Vince McMahon's tired empire as the top buyrate engine for pay-per-views. While White has much to do to advance MMA to the top tier of American sports, just the fact that he could plausibly do so in the next few years is breathtaking. Plus, with MMA having great success at the expense of boxing, it has played an important historical role in the sports world, because boxing has traditionally been such a huge part of the landscape in America.

4. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Death transforms superstars into icons: from Elvis to Knute Rockne to James Dean, the immortality of a constant presence in the culture awaits the gifted who perish before their time. Such is the case for "Big E," whose combination of accomplishment and popularity was unrivaled in his sport. With NASCAR benefiting from the asinine circuit split in the American open-wheel universe, a large and unprecedented national TV contract and huge media attention loomed for the 2001 season even before the tragic, season-starting accident at Daytona. But the tragedy in the final turn took everything to a whole new level and was the final impetus in carrying NASCAR to the top tier of American pro sports.

3. Lebron James. LBJ represented the apex of the high school-to-NBA era, which the Association ended in 2006. But that development didn't change his level of influence at all. He was the first hoops star to be documented so heavily at such a young age; to a certain extent Greg Oden and O.J. Mayo followed in his footsteps by having large media attention so long before college. Others will assuredly follow. But recent comments from Mayo and new crosstown rival Kevin Love about emulating James' media strategies have confirmed what has long been suspected: while Lebron grew up wanting to "Be Like Mike," and admittedly hasn't yet got the titles to match "That #23," stars of these generation are embracing as a model "This #23."

2. Tiger Woods. Doubtless most will find it shocking that this global icon is not tops on the list. He certainly is the most dominant athlete of the decade along with his friend Roger Federer in tennis and has public credibility and advertising dollars out the ying-yang. And although his emergence as one of the top two golfers of all time has helped the PGA to reach a new strata financially, he hasn't had the impact across multiple sports that our top person in sports did, albeit unintentionally.

1. Matt Kenseth. This NASCAR driver won the 2003 Winston Cup championship and is a perennial title threat. But he has a relatively low public profile compared to some other drivers on his talent level. How did he earn our top spot? He did so without trying, actually. His dull 2003 slog to the title in a season in which he won only one race but accrued points in a relentless but uninspiring style was the final straw that pushed NASCAR to institute its current Chase for the Championship playoff format. From 2004 on, the final 10 races of the season have served as a playoff for the drivers who qualify in the first 26 events. This has revitalized late-season fan interest, ratings and media attention as desired and led to the adoption of a playoff format by the PGA and NHRA, both in 2007. It is entirely possible that other circuits may adopt some form of a playoff system at some point, perhaps the ATP, WTA or PBA. Speaking of other circuits, the increased success of NASCAR made possible by the Chase has led to significant defections from both major open-wheel circuits in this country and probably sealed the doom of that form of competition as a major force in motorsports. At any rate, the effects of Kenseth's much-derided coast to the championship in 2003 forever changed NASCAR, solidified it as one of the predominant forces on the American sporting landscape, provided one more body-blow to open-wheel racing, and caused other sports to mimic the revolutionary changes in his own. As such, Matt Kenseth is deservedly the most influential figure in American sports thus far this decade.

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