Building a better sports world
One could argue that boxer Manny Pacquiao is the greatest athlete of the 2000s. He won 23 fights and claimed championships in five of his record seven different weight classes. His ability to maintain his power as he took on naturally bigger and stronger men is historic.
Yet the most important story that came from the night last month when he conquered that seventh weight class via a vicious TKO of Miguel Cotto occurred not in the ring, but in the mall-like hallways of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
About two hours before the main event, I went wandering to soak up the unique atmosphere of fight night in Vegas. I came across a guy leaning against one wall watching the preliminary card on his iPhone.
He said he wanted to be amid the energy of the casino even if he couldn't get a ticket to see the fights in person. So he bought the pay-per-view at his home back in Phoenix, set up a Slingbox and had the telecast forwarded to his phone. He planned on watching near the arena doors while also checking the live Twitter comments from the assembled media inside.
This isn't new technology. Not Slingbox, and not Slingbox being forwarded to increasingly smart phones. I had someone show me a college basketball game on a Treo about three years ago.
But it is the biggest story of the decade.
The 2000s should best be remembered not for what happened in sports, but how we watched it, read about it, debated it, consumed it and used it to increasingly get closer to the action than ever before.
Put it this way – in 1999 if I had predicted two things, which would you have thought was more likely:
A) A boxer would come along who would redefine what the sport considered possible when it came to climbing weight divisions and in the process would reinvigorate the fight game.
B) You could watch live sporting events on your telephone.
As a point of reference, in 1999, the vast majority of Americans didn't know how to send or receive a text message on their cell phones. Now we watch TV on the thing.
Technology always is advancing and every decade has made it easier and better to be a sports fan. Radio begat television, then ESPN came along. Talk radio allowed endless discussion, the Internet exploded, etc. All of this happened before Jan. 1, 2000.
This decade has seen historic advancement, however, so much so that teleporting back just one decade would be jarring.
No HDTV. No DVR. No YouTube. No slew of sports-centric Web sites. No advanced league-owned ones that allow out-of-market games and press conferences. No blogs. No satellite radio. No wireless Internet. No Twitter. No smart phones. And so on.
It would be nearly impossible to imagine in 1999 that you can now pause, rewind and fast forward live games. Now no one thinks twice about serving as your own replay official or stopping action to take a call or answer the door.
These days there's no reason (other than cost, of course) to ever miss a game of your favorite team – even if it's the Buffalo Sabres and you live in El Paso, Texas. Only the NFL requires a satellite for out-of-market games. After the action you can go online and discuss what happened with other fans like you still lived in western New York.
If you want to know what Peyton Manning said about Sunday's game, you don't have to wait until the Monday morning paper arrives so you can read quotes the reporter found interesting. You can watch his full postgame press conference on the team Web site.
If traffic makes you miss "PTI," then just TiVo it and watch later.
You can download an app on most smart phones and listen to a talk radio station in any market in the country. If you miss a big interview, you can just download the podcast and listen to it while you go for a run.
Interested in the most inane details of your favorite athlete, well, he'll probably tell you where he ate lunch on Twitter.
Out-of-town media? Not anymore. It's all local. Fantasy Sports is a breeze to play. You can gamble with an outfit in Costa Rica from your phone without leaving your seat in the stadium.
And no one thinks twice of being able to find out in seconds, say, Ted Williams' OPS in 1953. (It's 1.410.) Not only had no one ever heard of OPS in 1953 (which means someone has gone through the effort of retroactively calculating this stat), few people knew what it was in 1999 because of the lack of alternative sources for baseball information.
This is a decade when we became smarter as fans because we no longer relied on team-employed color commentators to define what was and wasn't important. There are myriad voices and perspectives. FireJoeMorgan wasn't just a Web site, it was a milestone.
Because it has crept up on us it's difficult to recall how far technology has carried the fan experience. I'm probably missing 50 good examples. A decade ago you either couldn't do any of the above or it required great dedication, which made the audience fairly small.
That's not to say all change has been positive. The news cycle has begun to spin so quickly that over-the-top instant analysis has replaced thoughtful reasoning. Small stories become unnecessarily big. Humiliation sells on some blogs.
Meanwhile, technology has devastated the newspaper and magazine industry, where fewer and fewer beat writers provide the frontline reporting that was overwhelmingly valuable. Investigative reporting is dying and long-form feature writing that offers depth to athletes and issues is all but extinct.
It's also easy to get inundated with options. Tailgates once were about quiet time spent visiting with friends, maybe tossing a ball around. These days I see everyone crowded around a giant TV watching a far-off game, occasionally glancing down to punch messages into their phones. The conversations appear distracted.
And fans have learned what the media has long said: You might not want to know everything about your hero athlete. Sometimes a filter (or a cooling-off period) is needed – whether it's pictures of an over-served pitcher or homophobic slurs on the Twitter account of a running back.
But for the most part, the 2000s were a glorious decade of progress for sports fans. More games, more highlights, more information, more debate and more divergent opinions were available.
The biggest story of the decade wasn't what Manny Pacquiao did, but where you could watch him do it.
In 10 years, that will seem quaint.