The 13 Best Sports Innovations We Take for Granted
Throughout the history of sports, changes have been made and technology has advanced to better the game being played—whether for the safety of the athlete or the pleasure of the spectator.
When watching a bone-rattling hit against the boards, we think back to times when hockey players, for reasons beyond logic, played without helmets.
When we watch someone crush a ball 500 feet over a wall only 350 feet away from where he stood, we thank the baseball gods for the evolution modern-day baseball has made since the “dead ball” era in the 1800s.
Some changes, however, have gone seemingly unnoticed by both parties and have been accepted as parts of everyday life.
The fact stands that, without these seldom mentioned innovations, the way we know sports today would be drastically different.
13. Sportvision—Implemented: 1996
Searching for a way to make hockey games more watchable for the general public, the FOX network, which had recently won the rights to broadcast NHL games, asked Stan Honey to develop a way for viewers to track the puck on the ice.
His innovation tracked the puck around the rink with a glowing red dot, which let off a comet-like trail when traveling at fast speeds.
“FoxTrax,” however, did not go over well and thus lasted only a year and a half. The "glow puck," which the league began using during the 1996 All-Star Game, ended after the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.
Despite its failure, it led to the creation of the private company Sportvision.
In 1998, ESPN programmer Gary Morgenstern conceived an idea to put an on-field marker indicating where NFL players needed to get to for a first down.
Sportvision then developed "1st and Ten," a graphics system that displays a yellow line at the designated yard mark, visible only to the television audience.
After being used in the Super Bowl broadcast that year, the graphic first down line became an instant success.
Today, the technology is used by Major League Baseball to track pitches, in NASCAR to track cars, and nearly every station that broadcasts sporting events.
12. Field Goal Posts—Last Adaptation: 1974
After adopting the modern-day three-point system for field goals in 1909, it took the NFL nearly 70 years to permanently place the goal posts where they are today.
At the dawn of American football, the goal posts (shaped as a giant "H") were located at the front of the end zone. However, because they were in the field of play, the posts caused several severe injuries and the disruption of countless plays.
In an effort to change this, the NCAA moved the posts to the back of the end zone in 1927. The NFL, which had, at the time, been following NCAA rules, did the same.
However, in an act of stubbornness, the league reversed their decision, moving the posts back to the front just five years later.
In 1967, the field goals were manufactured in a "slingshot" manner (changing the "H" shape to more of a "Y"). Although the rule is for all NFL teams to have this shape, a special case was exempt in 2005 when the New Orleans Saints were displaced after Hurricane Katrina and were forced to play in Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University.
Finally, when the hash marks were narrowed in 1972 for better field goal accuracy, the NFL pushed the posts back into the rear of the end zone, where they currently reside today.
Without the changes made to the goalposts, it would be nearly impossible for a modern NFL team to run any play in the red zone other than a fade or an out route for a touchdown.
Also, all field goal distance records would be 10 yards shorter.
11. Foul Line—Implemented: 1878
Ground zero of some of the most controversial calls in baseball history, the white chalk lines running along first and third base ending with a giant post, took several mutations to get to where they are today.
To distinguish between fair and foul, baseball fields had two foul ball posts placed 100 feet away from home plate in 1860. The next year, it was decided that a chalk line must connect from both home and first and home and third to further help judge fair and foul. However, at the time, the two chalk lines did not extend past the bases.
In 1874, the posts were moved to their familiar place at the boundaries of the yard, but the chalk line was not extended.
It wasn’t until 1878 that the chalk lines were extended from home plate to the yard's limits, meeting up with the poles.
Of all the changes the game of baseball has undergone, the implementing of the foul line is the most simple, yet most crucial, innovation for the sport.
10. Penalty Boxes—Implemented: 1963
From the start of the league to the implemented year listed above, penalized players of either team served their time in the same box.
In fact, Madison Square Garden did not have a penalty box, but instead delegated the guilty parties to sit in an aisle in the stands.
Despite multiple occasions of fisticuffs in the box, it took until one storied skirmish, according to The Official Rules of Hockey by James Duplacey, to ignite action on the league.
When Toronto Maple Leafs player Bob Pulford and Montreal Canadian player Terry Harper were whistled for fighting in an Oct. 30, 1963 game, they continued their fight into the box.
Apparently, Pulford had his sexual orientation questioned, and he was told he "didn't have the guts" to fight.
The next week, Toronto and Montreal each installed separate penalty boxes, the first two arenas in league history to have such a setup. The following year, the NHL mandated that each rink must follow suit.
Although fighting purists may see this as a step down for the league, there is no question that millions of brain cells and more than a couple of teeth were saved with this innovation.
9. Golf Club Grooves—Implemented: 1902
As golf clubs were being changed over from wood to steel craft, E. Burr had an idea to increase accuracy of the struck ball.
For much of golf's early history, clubs were made using hard woods, but a popular alternative at the turn of the 20th century was aluminum. E. Burr took advantage in 1902, when groove-faced irons were first introduced.
Grooves on an iron allow a player to lift the ball higher while putting increased spin on the ball.
When the ball is struck by a club, the ball becomes momentarily trapped between the turf and the club, and the grooves on the face of the club grab the cover of the ball, thus putting maximum spin on the ball.
Today, certain golf courses, especially ones used on the professional level, are designed so that only players who have mastered spin on the ball will be able to master the greens.
Without the innovation of the grooves, golfers would have an extremely tough time "pulling the string" and controlling their shot.
8. Three-Point Line—Implemented: 1961
It has gone by plenty of nicknames and had its share of kings, but the three-point line was not implemented in basketball for the majority of the time the game has been around.
The premise of the extra-point system was that a longer shot should be worth more points than a short one, suggested by Herman Sayger in 1933.
The first use of the arc was in the start-up ABL. However, the league folded within just a few years.
The ABA brought the idea of a three-point line back in 1975, using it, along with the slam dunk, as a marketing tool to compete with the NBA.
While the dunk has had its way in changing the game throughout the years, the idea of an extra point severely changed the course of the league.
After watching the success of the concept for a few years, the NBA adopted the rule to start the 1979-1980 season.
Today, the three-point line continues to undergo changes in distances to increase/decrease scoring averages.
Still, there is no doubt that the careers of player such as Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, as well as the exciting outcomes of games in the past three decades, would be very different without this implementation.
7. Curved Hockey Sticks—Implemented: 1961
During a Blackhawks practice in the early 1960s, Chicago forward Stan Mikita hit his stick against the sideboards, breaking his much-needed equipment.
Rather than go into the locker room to get a new one, Mikita decided to use his slightly bent stick.
In the process, Mikita noticed something strange: The bend in the stick seemed to make the puck move all over the air, thus confusing goalies and traveling into the net, all the while at faster speeds.
After seeing this new advantage he created on accident, Mikita took a flame to his stick to bend it on purpose. The Hall of Famer's goal numbers, which broke 20 for the season for the first time following the accident, speak for themselves.
Mikita found that a large curve all but eliminated the backhand, but he soon perfected the curve for game use.
Teammate Bobby Hull and many around the league followed suit, forcing the league to put in a rule against over-curving the stick. Former New York Rangers player Andy Bathgate was the self-proclaimed discoverer of the stick, but most historians credit Mikita with the innovation.
Thanks to Mikita's accident, all sticks used by skaters, some more so than others, have a curve on the face.
6. Backboards—Implemented: 1893
In the same year the first basket with a hole was invented, the ever-so-friendly-to-the-basket backboard was also invented.
The backboard was originally intended to keep spectators in the balcony from interfering with the game, but players found they could use it to further control their shot. The backboard and hoop were both first made out of chicken wire.
Apparently, back in 1893, chicken wire was a very popular commodity. Along with its use in the actual game, chicken wire was also used to keep spectators and players distanced from each other, as the game was very violent and saw numerous brawls break out.
The backboard was also instrumental in creating a popular statistic in basketball today: the rebound.
Today, the backboard is primarily used for high-flying dunks during the All-Star break, although some players still do manage to use it for regular shots.
5. Bleachers—Implemented: 1877
Considered the place where the real fans sit, bleachers are to sports as the golden arches are to McDonald's—without them, how do you really know where you are?
Known as the "bleaching boards" in 1877, the open seating area has been the epicenter of every sports memory from high school football games to World Series classics.
In baseball, the bleachers are located just past the outer limits of the wall, but due to constant distractions to hitters, straightaway center field is usually empty and covered with a solid wall.
The bleachers have also been a known spot for teenage lovin', yet another hallmark of American sports traditions.
Whether you stare at them from behind home plate or you are a bleacher bum yourself, it's hard to think of a baseball game without them.
4. Instant Replay—Implemented: 1955
First used by CBC on their Hockey Night in Canada program, instant replay has developed form a fun thing for fans to a must-have for every professional sport.
In 1955, CBC director George Retzlaff used a hot processor to create kinescope footage of goals to play on their most popular program.
However, the first use of actual instant replay did not occur until Dec. 7, 1963 in the annual Army-Navy game.
The instant replay as we know it today was used in this game, broadcast on CBS, and was invented by CBS sports director Tony Verna.
Today, instant replay is used after every big play during a sporting event on television, and every major sport uses it to get calls correct during the course of a game.
Without instant replay, the "Tuck Rule," Steve Bartman, and MJ's last shot would all be distant memories.
3. Forward Pass—Implemented: 1906
The most exciting and over-analyzed type of play in American football today, the forward pass, was actually against the rules when the game was first concocted.
Despite this, it has been shown that the forward pass had been illegally attempted at least 30 times before it was allowed.
Before it had been implemented in the league, teams would send groups of wedged players running full speed into each other, causing severe and, sometimes, fatal injuries.
The Chicago Tribune had reported in 1905 that there had been at least 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries in one season.
Because of the gruesome nature of the sport, many had called for it to be abolished altogether. President Teddy Roosevelt decided to allow the game to carry on if safer rules were installed.
To help protect abolish the deadly wedges, the forward pass was introduced.
The first legal forward pass was thrown by St. Louis University's Brad Robinson on Sept. 5, 1906. It gained rapid popularity, however, when Notre Dame used it to defeat Army on a national stage.
In the NFL, the forward pass was not legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage until 1933—until then, a passer had to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Today, the forward pass has dominated the football landscape. Players such as Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady have become icons to Americans, and now, thankfully, the number of players killed in action stands at an average around zero.
2. Curveball—Implemented: 1897
Still the trickiest pitch a baseball player can have, the curveball was the first type of breaking pitch created, as either Candy Cummings or Fred Goldsmith came up with the gimmick in the late 19th century.
In the beginning years of the curveball, the pitch was nearly unhittable and was therefore said to be a cheap play.
However, once pitchers got a hold of its power, officials had little authority in stopping it, and it has since become a trade house pitch.
Upon first observation, some thought the pitch did not actually move, but rather was an optical illusion. To debunk that theory, Ralph B. Lightfoot used a wind tunnel to show that the ball did indeed curve.
Today, a curveball is a must-have pitch for any pitcher, and it has been perfected over the years by the likes of Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden, and Francisco Rodriguez.
1. Racial Integration in Basketball—1942
Without the fanfare of baseball or the controversy of football, the racial integration of basketball has proven to be the most successful and, perhaps, most overlooked innovation in sports history.
In 1942, five years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the first integration occurred in the National Basketball League when 10 black players were allowed to join teams.
After the NBL folded and the NBA stepped in, it took until 1950 for the first black player, Chuck Cooper (pictured), to be drafted. Despite this, it was Earl Loyd, who played one day before the two other black players in the NBA that season, to be the first black player in an NBA game.
The influx of African-Americans boomed in the NBA, and by 1964, the Boston Celtics had an all-black starting lineup. The influence only grew.
In 1996, when the NBA named the 50 greatest players of the past 50 years, 31 of the players were African-American, and one was African.
In a period of just 50 years, the NBA went from 100 percent to 16 percent European-American.
Today, most of the greatest players ever known, such as Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson, have the integration of basketball to thank for their success.