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An Imperfect TEN
L. JON WERTHEIM
December 28, 2009
The Aughts: A decade hard to name also defies easy description. A swimmer awash in gold, a fallen golf star ... the years brought dizzying heights and depths—and glimpses of the decade to come
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December 28, 2009

An Imperfect Ten

The Aughts: A decade hard to name also defies easy description. A swimmer awash in gold, a fallen golf star ... the years brought dizzying heights and depths—and glimpses of the decade to come

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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.

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.

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