The Most Important People in Sports History
The true titans of sports are not always the champions, but the transcendent figures who change the game, wield the power, and have the influence to change the way we view sports and culture.
This list will include athletes who were not only champions, but rather athletes who transformed their sports and how we view sports in general.
Also included are the executives who took their respective sports to levels never before reached, and whose influence and contributions have been unmatched.
Some of these figures are household names, and at least one you have probably never heard of before, but they all changed sports and, in some ways, society forever.
10. Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods is the most powerful non-soccer playing athlete in the world today.
In Woods' first 13 years on tour he has more wins than Hogan, Palmer, Nelson, Watson, Trevino, and Player did in their whole careers. His 14 (or 16 depending on who you ask) major victories rank second all-time to Jack Nicklaus.
Tiger has been so dominant that he's the only golfer in the history of the game who has courses redesigned for the sole purpose of limiting his game.
Nobody has ever made more money on the course or off the course as an active golfer than Woods, and he is America's first true postmodern athlete.
Woods isn't media friendly, isn't political, and never makes a statement or press conference without a cadre of advisers in his ear.
All of this would be enough to ensure his place on this list without ever mentioning the racial barriers he's torn down.
9. Babe Ruth
It is accepted that top athletes are celebrities in today's culture; however, that wasn't always the case.
Until Babe Ruth hit New York.
There is no debate that Ruth is one of the five best non-pitchers of all time, and he might have very well been one of the fifty greatest pitchers as well.
However, Ruth was our nation's first true sports celebrity, a man who was more than just a sports hero. He was a household name.
Just how famous was Babe Ruth?
During World War II, Japanese soldiers were told only one English phrase to take into battle in order to anger American troops, "To hell with Babe Ruth!"
Ruth was not only a ballplayer, but a multi-media star with his own radio show, movie deals, commercial endorsements, and everything the modern athlete has a half century before the "modern era" of sports ever began.
American sports fans might not want to admit it, but the most famous athlete to ever live is the man born Edison Arantes do Nascimento.
Pele is the most famous and popular athlete in the world's most popular game, and he isn't just the world's most well-known athlete; he's the world's most well person.
However, make no mistake, Pele wasn't just a famous face. He was also as dominant in his sport as Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky were in theirs.
During a 21-year career, Pele played in 468 professional matches and scored 506 goals to go along with his three World Cup Championships.
Pele was not only soccer's first true worldwide superstar; he was the third world's first superstar, and a man who embodies his sport more than any other athlete who has ever lived.
7. Bill Rassmussen
I told you there would be one figure on this list you wouldn't know.
In the late 1970s, an unemployed sportscaster from Springfield, Massachusetts had an idea that seemed too crazy to ever work.
With the growing popularity of cable television, Bill Rassmussen had the idea for a channel that would show and cover sports 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
ESPN began as a rag tag operation that provided viewers with endless hours of odd sports programming, including AWA Wrestling, rodeos, Aussie Rules Football, and Davis Cup tennis.
However, EPSN was also ahead of the curve in their coverage of college sports and, in particular, basketball, where the sport and its lead broadcaster, a former coach named Dick Vitale, became a staple of sports programming.
ESPN changed the way we watch sports, giving us in-depth coverage and analysis of both the games and their personalities at any hour of the day.
Love it or hate it, much of what sports are today is directly attributed to Bill Rassmussen's gamble.
6. Michael Jordan and Phil Knight
Never before has there been a better match made in heaven than Michael Jordan and Phil Knight.
We all know about Jordan as the best basketball player, if not the best athlete, to ever live.
However, Knight as the founder and CEO of Nike found in a young Jordan the vehicle he needed to grow his company into the biggest sportswear and shoe company on earth.
Nike's "Air Jordan" and Mars Blackmon campaigns changed the way athletes were marketed and turned them from heroes to brands.
The next time you think about the commercialism of modern sports you can thank Jordan and Knight for the trend.
5. Bernie Ecclestone and Bill France Jr.
The creepy looking guy in the picture with the trophy wife is only the wealthiest sports entrepreneur in the world.
Bernie Ecclestone is president and CEO of Formula 1, with an estimated personal wealth of around $3.5 billion.
Ecclestone began his career as a driver and, later, a team owner. In 1978, he managed a coup of Formula 1 racing that allowed him to receive nearly 30 percent of all worldwide T.V. revenue, making him the most powerful sports executive in auto sports.
Like Bernie Ecclestone, Bill France Jr. ran his auto racing organization with an iron fist, exerting almost total control.
Unlike Ecclestone, who gained control of Formula 1 through cunning and astute business dealings, NASCAR was the France family business, and his cunning and astute dealings came after he took over.
France was able to take NASCAR from a regional curiosity to a national sport in less that 20 years, replacing open wheel racing as the auto sport of choice for American fans.
During France's tenure, NASCAR went from a small southern promotion to a television property worth more than $3 billion by his retirement in 2000.
4. Muhammad Ali
If anybody took a poll of the most recognized person in the world, the short list would include four people: The Pope, Barack Obama, Pele, and Muhammad Ali.
Ali is important not only because of his status as one of boxing's greatest champions, but also for his social and political stances.
Whether you agree or disagree with Ali's political stances of the late '60s, unlike most athletes, he was willing to end a profitable career as the World Heavyweight Champion to follow his conscience.
The brash and outspoken Ali proved that he was more than talk when his title and career were stripped away for three years.
The stances Ali took might not have held as much relevance had it not been for the fact that he had the goods in the ring. Rarely challenged in the ring before his 1967 banishment, Ali destroyed opponent after opponent, racking up a 29-0-0 record with 23 knockouts.
However, it was his career after his banishment (along with the moderation of his social, political, and religious views) and legendary fights with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton that made him an even bigger legend.
Awesome in victory, noble in defeat, and always willing to put his money where his (very large) mouth was, Muhammad Ali was one of the most well-known, beloved, and influential athletes in the world.
3: Billie Jean King
King's resume as one of the best female tennis players of all time speaks for itself.
129 singles titles, 12 grand slam titles, a career grand slam, 16 grand slam doubles titles, and 11 mixed doubles grand slam titles are as impressive a resume of any tennis player, male or female, to ever live.
However, King's legacy is not only in her excellence on the court, but also in her impact on woman's sports.
Before Title IX, there was Billy Jean King acting as an advocate not only for female tennis players, but for female athletes in general.
King started the Virginia Slims (now WTA) Tour, the Women's Sports Foundation, and sport's first co-ed professional organization with World Team Tennis. Also, her activism was instrumental in bringing about the open era of professionalism in tennis, benefiting players of all genders.
Most well-known for her "Battle of the Sexes" match with Bobby Riggs, King was always a strong advocate for not only tennis, but women in all sports.
In some way, every great female athlete from Mia Hamm to Candace Parker owes a debt of gratitude to Billy Jean King.
2: Pete Rozelle
Pete Rozelle is the greatest sports executive of all time—period.
An unlikely choice as the leader of professional football, Rozelle took over the league in 1960 as a 34-year-old general manager with two years of experience.
Rozelle saw his league face direct competition and eventually doubled the size of the league with an NFL/AFL merger. Under Rozelle, football became the most popular televised sport in the 1970s, with Monday Night Football becoming can't-miss TV and the Super Bowl becoming the biggest event in sports.
In the '80s, he successfully navigated the league through two player strikes that threatened to shut down the league and also battled the upstart USFL into extension.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Rozelle's biggest feat was convincing the owners to share revenue equally, forming a football cartel where every team in the league benefited as the league benefited. By doing this, he also improved the competitive level of football.
Under Rozelle, pro football went from the second most popular type of football in America, to the most popular sport in America.
1: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
Long before Dr. King or Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson became America's first civil rights icon.
However, as great as Robinson's struggle was, it would not have been possible without the help of the puritanical Dodgers GM who also happened to be perhaps the greatest executive in baseball history.
Branch Rickey was always ahead of his time in formulating what he would call "The Dodger Way," which included building a strong farm system, trading player before their skills deteriorated and while they still had value, and stocking the Dodgers with the best talent available.
If that talent happened to be African-American, then that was fine as well.
Rickey's bringing Jackie Robinson and a host of other former Negro League players into Brooklyn was one part moral conviction and one part competitive advantage.
Rickey sought to break the color barrier in 1946 when he petitioned the owners to allow African-Americans to become a part of Major League Baseball. The vote was 1-11 against the measure; however, commissioner (and former southern politician) Happy Chandler overruled the owners, famously saying, "If the Negro can make it at Guadalcanal, they can make it in baseball."
Then there was Robinson, who was "the right type of Negro" that Rickey was looking for to break baseball's color barrier. Educated, well-spoken, articulate, and non-threatening, Robinson possessed all the traits Rickey was looking for.
What Robinson endured from opposing teammates, fans, and some of his own players amounted as some of the most vicious and hate-filled racism imaginable, yet Robinson, as Rickey demanded, turned the other cheek.
Robinson didn't simply endure the racism he experienced on a daily basis, but delivered the goods on the field as well. Hitting a .311 for his Major League career, he was named the 1949 MVP, and was widely considered to be the best fielding second baseman in the game.
Robinson became an icon who paved the way for not only all African-American baseball players, but all African-American athletes in the United States.