Miracle on Ice
The United States' victory over the then-Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics was not only the greatest hockey moment in U.S. history, but arguably the greatest sporting event in this country's history. Those who had never seen a hockey game watched and, true, many never watched another hockey game. But the 1980 team did create hockey fans and, more important, inspired a new generation of youth hockey players who eventually became NHL stars such as Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, Brian Leetch and many more.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns, 1981
Why this fight? Why not a fight involving Muhammad Ali? First, it was a tremendous fight with Leonard winning on a 14th-round TKO. But its significance has nothing to do with how great the fight was. It was how we viewed boxing after this. Viacom Cablevision made this fight available to subscribers in Nashville for a fee. Thus, pay-per-view was born. Today, virtually all major championship fights are seen exclusively on pay-per-view.
By the mid 1990s, golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and even Tom Watson were past their prime when a kid named Tiger Woods arrived with enormous expectations and hype. Woods, only 21 at the time, proved he was as billed with an astonishing performance at the Masters. Woods shot 18-under 270 to win his first major by an incredible 12 shots. Golf needed a spark, and Woods lit an explosion. His emergence lifted golf into unprecedented popularity that continues to this day.
Two championship games
We can point to two games that changed the NFL. The first was the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played,'' the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, which was televised nationally and viewed by an estimated 45 million. The Colts won on Alan Ameche's 1-yard plunge in overtime. From this game forward, the NFL experienced new popularity and eventually became the most popular sport among American television viewers. The signature event — the Super Bowl — changed forever in Super Bowl III when Joe Namath's Jets of the old American Football League upset the NFL's Colts, laying the foundation for the Super Bowl becoming what amounts to a national holiday in the United States.
Some are saying that the United States' victory over Algeria in the World Cup on Wednesday was the most influential soccer game ever played by this country. That might be true. It propelled the United States into the next round and, perhaps for the first time, had even casual sports fans paying attention. It remains to be seen how much of an impact that game will ultimately have, especially if the United States is knocked out on Saturday. Still, people are talking about soccer like never before in this country. Here's a look at other memorable games that helped spark interest in their sports.
Jackie and Carlton
Baseball has such a long, storied history that it's impossible to point to one game, so here are two that had a huge impact on the sport. First, naturally, is Jackie Robinson's major-league debut on April 15, 1947, that broke baseball's color barrier. The other was Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, which some claim is the greatest baseball game ever played. The Red Sox won on Carlton Fisk's 12th-inning homer. The Reds won Game 7 to take the Series. In the years preceding the '75 World Series, baseball was in the doldrums. But 1975 (especially Game 6) helped baseball experience a resurgence. It didn't hurt that the Yankees were in the World Series over the next three seasons, including twice against another marquee team, the Dodgers.
Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs
This was a mere exhibition, but the outcome was crucial. Not only did this nationally televised 1973 "Battle of the Sexes'' spark an interest in tennis, it did wonders for women's sports. Riggs was 55 at the time, King was 29 and the No. 1-ranked women's player in the world. Had King lost, it would have been a major setback for women's sports. But King crushed Riggs in straight sets, and her decisive victory was a major boost for women's sports. And tennis, with stars such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe coming down the pike, enjoyed widespread popularity in the coming years.
1979 NCAA championship
It seems odd to list a college game as having an impact on the NBA, but the 1979 NCAA title game between Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores was the first chapter in one of the greatest basketball rivalries in NBA history. The 1979 championship wasn't well-played (Michigan State won 75-64), but it remains the most-viewed basketball game in NCAA history. Both Magic and Bird entered the NBA the next season and their teams (Lakers and Celtics) won eight of the next nine NBA titles, including three meetings against each other in the NBA Finals. The arrival of Magic and Bird, and later Michael Jordan, vaulted the NBA to heights it never had experienced.