Sports Illustrated's Predictions for the Future of Sports (in 1991)


"I am here to tell you that I am pretty pleased with life in the 21st century."

Those are the words of "Ulysses S. Spectator," the fictional 50-year-old postman who serves as the narrator for "2001: A Fan's World," a Sports Illustrated cover story written by William Oscar Johnson. The piece, which was published in 1991, predicts what the future of watching sports will be like. For the fan, the future was good.

Starting with New Year's Day college bowl games, the article depicts the year 2001 through the prism of sports viewership while going on a few interesting detours. For example, take this early entry:

The ozone layer is a bit more depleted and the resulting greenhouse warmth makes winter pretty nice in Duluth. It is New Year's Day, and the temperature is 50°. Very pleasant. However, I do miss that cozy-cocoon sensation I have experienced on so many New Year's Days past as I sat snug in front of my TV, watching hour after hour of college bowl games, while bone-freezing winds whipped off the ice pack on Lake Superior.

What will the rest of the future look like, sports fans? Let's go to 2001 via 1991 to find out.

The Future of Money in Sports

According to SI, the future of the sports world's economy rests on one prediction: The NBA, NFL, MLB, and NCAA will break from the networks and start their own viewing services, thus forever severing sports and standard TV. While each league (and even some teams) has its own network nowadays, they are all still under the sovereignty of satellite or cable providers. This glimpse of the future also fails to predict the rise of ESPN, a prophecy that Sports Illustrated would have found useful.

In the future, SI says, every game in every league becomes a pay-per-view event, subsidized by advertising and taxed to the point that it punishes the players and team owners.

This development is celebrated in the piece, which is absolutely dripping with contempt for professional athletes. Many of the predictions can be construed as slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the vitriol reserved for athletes seems to be entirely genuine. "We were already appalled by the unvarnished greed exhibited by so many of the leading lights of our sports establishment," Ulysses says. "And we were even more disgusted by the thought that the more we paid for sports, the more these louts and ingrates would profit. We still loved our games, but we despised the greed of the people who played and ran them."

The narrator then describes how the high taxation of PPV earnings and the capping of player salaries directly leads to funding for AIDS and cancer research. This utopian development is all thanks to an ingenious and thoughtful plan hatched by President Dan Quayle.

Future Technology for Watching Sports

In 2001, everyone owns a Home Control Truck (HCT), a "relatively inexpensive ($1,250)" setup that allows viewers to "call up pictures, sound, and instant replays as network directors of old once did in their control trucks." Not a bad prediction, as many league or network websites offer dedicated player cams and other views to augment the TV-watching experience nowadays.

"My HCT system," Ulysses says, "is fairly typical for someone with my income." As a postman, his job is completely unaffected by email because, in this version of the future, email does not exist. The HCT sort of acts as the Internet, but the only active role the user takes is when he or she bets on sporting events or pays taxes (which are beamed "directly to the IRS satellite"). Sports betting is legalized in "all 52 states," and funds from the "Robo-Bookie" are "earmarked only for the most worthy causes, such as elder care, abused children and world hunger."

An HCT system "includes a wall of 16 small TV monitors, plus my own director's microphone, tucked behind one of the monitors, and a console to select whatever pictures and sounds I want to appear on my central eight-foot, high-definition TV screen, known as the Big Eye." This seems to be heavily influenced by the "parlor walls" from Fahrenheit 451, although here, like the earlier description of global warming, it is presented as a pleasant development.

The article is on the right track with something it calls "VEM" (Very Exciting Moment). "A sudden crowd roar from one of the games will instantly superimpose a message on Big Eye notifying me that a VEM has occurred. The message will then indicate how I can call up the moment." This sounds a bit like Twitter collectively finding out about an exciting event — just search #LeaguePassAlert during the NBA season for an example. Ulysses continues, "I can also order up my own choice of specific VEMs from any game — such as my favorites: ADMB (All Dixieland Marching Bands) and CIPBM (Cheerleaders in Particularly Brief Miniskirts)." VEM revolutionizes the Male Gaze.

The NFL of the Future

Expansion has resulted in a 20-game season, something not too absurd given the league's stated desire to increase to 18 games. Future NFL has 40 teams, including an "Over There Conference" comprised of squads from London, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, Johannesburg, Bombay, Djakarta, Sydney, Auckland, and Mexico City. In reality, the NFL isn't there yet, but they do make the Jacksonville Jaguars play a game in England every year. We're close.

In this future, various premium packages are available to viewers, including one that sounds like the Red Zone channel. Another package sounds like HBO's Hard Knocks: "There is the All-Day Sunday package, which costs $25 and, via TV, allows you to be with your favorite team from the moment it gathers for breakfast at its motel until it leaves the stadium that night after the game."

SI misses the mark, however, with "Common Huddle," a $600 service that allows fans at home to vote for what play their favorite team should execute mid-game. "There is no greater video thrill than the sensation of watching the Vikes go for a crucial first down — or even score a winning TD (it happened to me once) — on the exact play I called!" Alternate Future Richard Nixon would surely subscribe and call in plays from his titanium spider exoskeleton.

Most intriguing, though, is the "TSQ" (Total Steroids Quotient), which "limits a 50-man team to no more than 25 players who test positive for steroids at any one time during the season." Of course, this would be a massive increase in severity from the NFL's current steroid policy — science-fiction, indeed.

The NBA of the Future

Perhaps prisoners of the Jordan moment of the early '90s, SI says that, in 2001, basketball is "the global game...and is more popular than soccer ever was." (This is the only time soccer is mentioned in the piece.) Basketball's real-life international growth is pretty formidable, but they missed the mark just a bit here. Not much more is said about the NBA, beyond the fact that, in 2001, the season is year-round and the playoffs last three months (not too absurd given the current format of four consecutive seven-game series).

Like the NFL's Total Steroid Quotient, the NBA is predicted to adopt a "TTQ" (Total Tallness Quotient) to limit the cumulative height of each squad. Fun.

Oh, and in 2001, Michael Jordan regrows his hair and still plays for the Bulls (who wear yellow):

Baseball in the Future

Opening day takes place at the "vast, fishbowl-shaped stadium of the world champion Florida Marlins" (pretty close). Later in the year, the Pirates sweep the Royals in 11 games in the World Series (it's now a best-of-21 format), but barely anyone watches this small market showdown. Apparently SI felt that an NFL team in Tehran was more realistic than municipal growth in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

The NHL of the Future

There is no mention of the NHL in the future.

The NCAA of the Future

The NCAA is the one sporting institution that should change more than any other, and we're not talking about a college football playoff (which is something SI correctly predicts). In "2001: A Fan's World," the NCAA struggles financially because they are forced to pay the players:

"The big money crunch for the NCAA came after the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that colleges were guilty of participating in a form of discrimination bordering on slavery as long as they pretended to require varsity athletes to attend class and did not pay them openly for their participation in sports. Thus, all college players are now given their paychecks in a public ceremony after each game." 

Because of this, they have to rely more on corporate sponsorship. "The upfront player payrolls added such a load to athletic department budgets that the NCAA had to recruit corporate sponsors to purchase the athletic departments outright. Once owned by a corporation, everything in college sport became available as prime advertising space for sponsors' products."

The only thing protecting the sanctity of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl has been the refusal to pay the people who play in it.

This is not the world President Quayle promised us. Take me back to 1991.