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The 10 most influential figures in sports in the past 50 years

The conversation started last week when it was learned that Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association since 1986, would step down next year. As leader of the most powerful union in all of sports, Fehr has to be considered one of the most influential sports figures ever, doesn't he? Trying to settle on a list of those who have had the most impact in sports varies from person to person depending on one's favorite sports and how, exactly, one defines impact. This list is based on those who changed the landscape of sports, how we watch and how they are played. And by whom. Eras differ, so the impact made by, say, Babe Ruth is different from the one made by, say, Tiger Woods. With television, advertising and the Internet, sports evolve almost by the minute. So those in recent years leave more fingerprints than those in the early 20th century. With that in mind we look, in no particular order, at 10 of the most influential figures over the past 50 years.

Bill France Sr.

He founded NASCAR in 1948, but it's what his brilliant business sense created two decades later that's now common in sports: title sponsors. In 1970, France struck a deal with R.J. Reynolds, creating the "Winston Cup'' series, once described by the Washington Post as "the most successful sports marketing alliance in history.'' Today you see title sponsors for stadiums, bowl games, entire leagues, and France is as responsible for that as anyone. Plus he turned a cult sport into a giant.

Steve Bornstein

In 1979, father and son Bill and Scott Rasmussen launched a cable channel that focused on Connecticut sports. It was called ESPN. Bornstein became the network's president in 1990 and it exploded from a string-and-tape outfit to just what it calls itself: the worldwide leader in sports. Practically every major sport has a contract with ESPN and its signature show, SportsCenter, is a must-view daily for sports fans. One might even argue that ESPN, through its coverage, dictates American sports. Bornstein, who was responsible for all that, became president of ABC Sports in 1996 then moved on to run NFL Network. George Bodenheimer became ESPN's fifth president in 1998 and probably is the reigning titleholder of "the most powerful person in sports.''

Pete Rozelle

On Jan. 26, 1960, a 33-year-old PR specialist became commissioner of the NFL and over the next 30 years established himself as the greatest commissioner in the history of American sports. Under Rozelle's steady hand, the NFL became the most powerful and popular league in the country. He presided over the NFL's merger with the AFL and several expansions as well as Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl, which has become something of a national holiday. Quite simply, Rozelle created the monster that is the modern-day NFL.

Marvin Miller/Donald Fehr

These two heads of the baseball players' association share a spot because neither would have had as much impact without the other. Miller negotiated baseball's first collective bargaining agreement and won free-agent rights for players. When Fehr took over in 1983, the average major-league salary was $289,000. Today, it's $3.2 million. Fehr's impact also was negative (crazy salaries that have driven a wedge between big- and small-market teams, several strikes, including one that canceled the 1994 World Series, and his role in the steroid era) but immense.

Roone Arledge

Nothing has had a greater impact on sports during the past 50 years than television and no one has had more of an impact over TV sports than Arledge. He joined ABC in 1960 and during his reign, he created landmark programs such as Monday Night Football and Wide World of Sports, as well as turning the Olympics into must-see TV. Quite simply, he's the father of sports television.

Wayne Gretzky

It's debatable whether someone who played hockey should be on this list, considering hockey's meek standing in the United States. But Gretzky literally changed the landscape of the hockey map when he was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988. Gretzky, by far the best player in the sport as well as its all-time greatest ambassador, turned a nontraditional hockey market into a hockey hotbed. Because of that, teams started to spring up all over the Sun Belt. Because of Gretzky, the road was paved for the NHL to put teams in Tampa Bay, South Florida, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim, Raleigh and Nashville.

Patsy Mink

In 1972, this Hawaiian congresswoman authored a bill that read, ''No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." It was called Title IX. And though the original law never specifically mentioned athletics, Title IX opened the doors — legally and in the national consciousness — for girls and women to have the same athletic opportunities as men. Since Title IX, and with the significant contributions of athletes such as Billie Jean King, more girls are participating in athletics than ever before.

Bill Winkenbach

There's a good chance that no one out there knows who Winkenbach is, but many of you know his work so well that you imitate it. Winkenbach was part-owner of the Oakland Raiders, and in a Manhattan hotel room in 1962, he created a concept, with several friends, for a game that used the actual statistics of real football games. They called it the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of these leagues across the country involving millions of dollars. Each league has its own name, but we all call it by one name: fantasy football.

Mark McCormack

Athletes selling products on TV goes back decades to when ballplayers pitched cars and tobacco. But McCormack, who founded the legendary International Manage­ment Group (better known as IMG), took it to another level. McCormack, whose first client was Arnold Palmer in 1960, became the most powerful agent in sports and a visionary in marketing by realizing that sports stars and products made a perfect marriage. Today, athletes make millions off the field through endorsements, and McCormack made that possible.

All tied for 10th

Like we said, coming up with a list of only 10 is impossible, so we'll cheat and give a tie for 10th place. Among those are Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and, later, Michael Jordan for saving the NBA in the 1980s; skateboarder Tony Hawk for helping extreme sports join the mainstream; Nike founder Phil Knight for creating the most popular shoe and apparel company in sports; and the unnamed person who created the major sports story of our generation — the man or woman who introduced steroids to sports.

The 10 most influential figures in sports in the past 50 years 06/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 3:16pm]
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