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Written byMichael Husain (11 episodes, 2001–2006)
Pat Smith (1 episode, 1999)
Michael Douglas Callan (1 episode, 2001)
Michael Strom (unknown episodes)
Directed byMichael Husain (2 episodes, 2001–2005)
Michael Douglas Callan (1 episode, 2001)
Sean Waters (1 episode, 2006)
Presented byChris Fowler
ComposersGeoff Zanelli (8 episodes, 2000–2003)
Gregg Lehrman (3 episodes, 2004–2005)
Robert Leslie Bennett (2 episodes, 2000–2003)
Pedro Bromfman (2 episodes, 2003–2005)
Ramón Balcázar (1 episode, 2000)
Robin Lynn (1 episode, 2000)
Charles A. Wolschon (2 episodes, 2003–2005)
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes261
CinematographyJim Grieco (87 episodes, 1999–2006)
Jared Manders (8 episodes, 2000–2005)
Doug Longwill (5 episodes, 2001–2004)
Running time30—60 minutes
Production companyESPN
Original release
ReleaseJanuary 22, 1999 (1999-01-22)[1] –
2007 (2007)
Beyond the Glory

SportsCentury is an ESPN biography television program that reviews the people and events that defined sports in North America throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Using stock footage, on-camera interviews, and photographs of their athletic lives, who grew up.

In 1999, ESPN counted down the Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century, selected from North American athletes and voted on by a panel of sports journalists and observers,[2] premiering a new biography highlighting each top athlete every week throughout the year. The episodes for the top two athletes, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, appeared on a special combined edition broadcast on Christmas Day on ABC. The top two names were announced in no particular order, and the final positioning was announced at the conclusion of the two episodes. An additional list of numbers 51–100 were announced on the ESPN SportsCentury website. Themed specials such as Greatest Games, Greatest Coaches, Greatest Dynasties, and Most Influential Individuals were premiered throughout the year, as well as six SportsCenter of the Decade programs.

After the initial run was complete, the episodes were rerun at various times on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic. The original plan for the series was to expand to include #51 through #100. Ultimately, the series featured just over half of the athletes from #51 to #100, and instead expanded to include over 150 other athletes, coaches, owners, personalities, and notable moments in sports history. Acknowledgements were given to athletes that were notable for more recent accomplishments, even if they spent only a small part of their career in the 20th century (e.g., Tiger Woods, Tom Brady), or were recently deceased (e.g. Pat Tillman, Dale Earnhardt). Special subsets of episodes were created revolving around a particular event, including athletes associated with the particular sport. They would typically air in the days leading up to those events. (e.g., Winter Olympics, golf majors, Indianapolis 500, etc.)

ESPN Classic began to feature the program with host, Chris Fowler, as the highlight of its weeknight prime-time programing, airing five nights a week. After cycling through the entire series several times, and after debuting several new episodes, it was removed as a nightly program. As of 2007, reruns of the documentary series airs Monday through Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern time. The last original program was that of Shaquille O'Neal, which aired in November 2007.[3]


The final order of choices led to debate, some of which came from the SportsCentury camp. Bob Costas, one of the series' voters, said, "I had Babe Ruth as my number one, but I think the list they came up with was a good one. Everybody more or less deserved to be there." ESPN writer Bud Morgan conceded that the Secretariat pick "was kind of controversial because a lot of people took the attitude 'What is a four-legged animal doing on this list?'"

Tony Kornheiser, whose ballot was topped by Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, said, "I can't conceive of how Ruth didn't finish number one. He had the greatest impact of anybody on a sport by far... Michael Jordan didn't have as many championships as Bill Russell and didn't score as many points as Wilt Chamberlain, and really didn't do anything to advance his sport, so maybe in retrospect I upgraded him a bit too much because the way he performed was so spectacular, and because of television I got to see highlights. They may have overpersuaded a lot of us... Did Jim Thorpe get the praise he deserved? Probably not, because there weren't enough people old enough to really remember him."

ESPN anchor Charley Steiner said "I think picking [Jordan] number one was a generational decision, not a historical one. Babe Ruth deserved it more."[4]

Don King lawsuit[edit]

In 2005, Don King and his promotional company, Don King Productions, Inc. filed a $2.5 billion defamation suit against the Walt Disney Company, the current owners of ESPN and ABC Cable Networks Group, and Advocate Communications, after a documentary alleged that King had "killed, not once, but twice", threatened to break Larry Holmes' legs, had a hospital invest into a film that was never made, cheated Meldrick Taylor out of $1 million, and then threatened to have Taylor killed. Though the documentary repeated many claims that were already made, King said he had now had enough. King's attorney said "It was slanted to show Don in the worst way. It was one-sided from day one, Don is a strong man, but he has been hurt by this."[5]

The case was dismissed on summary judgment with a finding that King could not show "actual malice" from the defendants, and that King had failed to prove that any of the challenged statements were false. The judgement also pointed out that the studio had tried on a number of occasions to interview King for the documentary, but he had declined; while not suggesting that King had a legal obligation to do so, the court sympathized with ESPN's circumstances on those grounds. King appealed the decision and, 3 years later, the Second District Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgement, but disagreed with the original finding that none of the statements were false. In any case, Judge Dorian Damoorgian ruled, "Nothing in the record shows that ESPN purposefully made false statements about King in order to bolster the theme of the program or to inflict harm on King".[6]


SportsCentury won a Peabody Award in 1999 "for overall excellence in sports broadcasting."[7]

SportsCentury: Top 50 American Athletes of the 20th Century (Original series)[edit]

Babe Ruth was voted No. 2
Muhammad Ali was voted No. 3
Number Athlete Sport
1 Michael Jordan Basketball
2 Babe Ruth Baseball
3 Muhammad Ali Boxing
4 Jim Brown Football
5 Wayne Gretzky Ice hockey
6 Jesse Owens Track and field
7 Jim Thorpe Multiple sports
8 Willie Mays Baseball
9 Jack Nicklaus Golf
10 Babe Zaharias Multiple sports
11 Joe Louis Boxing
12 Carl Lewis Track and field
13 Wilt Chamberlain Basketball
14 Hank Aaron Baseball
15 Jackie Robinson Baseball
16 Ted Williams Baseball
17 Magic Johnson Basketball
18 Bill Russell Basketball
19 Martina Navratilova Tennis
20 Ty Cobb Baseball
21 Gordie Howe Ice hockey
22 Joe DiMaggio Baseball
23 Jackie Joyner-Kersee Track and field
24 Sugar Ray Robinson Boxing
25 Joe Montana Football
26 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Basketball
27 Jerry Rice Football
28 Red Grange Football
29 Arnold Palmer Golf
30 Larry Bird Basketball
31 Bobby Orr Ice hockey
32 Johnny Unitas Football
33 Mark Spitz Swimming
34 Lou Gehrig Baseball
35 Secretariat Horse racing
36 Oscar Robertson Basketball
37 Mickey Mantle Baseball
38 Ben Hogan Golf
39 Walter Payton Football
40 Lawrence Taylor Football
41 Wilma Rudolph Track and field
42 Sandy Koufax Baseball
43 Julius Erving Basketball
44 Bobby Jones Golf
45 Bill Tilden Tennis
46 Eric Heiden Speed skating, cycling
47 Edwin Moses Track and field
48 Pete Sampras Tennis
49 O. J. Simpson Football
50 Chris Evert Tennis

SportsCentury: 51–100[edit]

Mario Lemieux was voted no. 55
Pete Rose was voted no. 56 despite serving a lifetime ban from baseball.
Number Athlete Sport
51 Rocky Marciano Boxing
52 Jack Dempsey Boxing
53 Rafer Johnson Track and field
54 Greg Louganis Diving
55 Mario Lemieux Ice hockey
56 Pete Rose Baseball
57 Bill Shoemaker Horse racing
58 Elgin Baylor Basketball
59 Billie Jean King Tennis
60 Walter Johnson Baseball
61 Stan Musial Baseball
62 Jerry West Basketball
63 Satchel Paige Baseball
64 Sammy Baugh Football
65 Althea Gibson Tennis, golf
66 Eddie Arcaro Horse racing
67 Bob Gibson Baseball
68 Al Oerter Track and field
69 Bonnie Blair Speed skating
70 Dick Butkus Football
71 Roberto Clemente Baseball
72 Bo Jackson Football, baseball
73 Josh Gibson Baseball
74 Deion Sanders Football, baseball
75 Dan Marino Football
76 Barry Sanders Football
77 Cy Young Baseball
78 Bob Mathias Track and field
79 Gale Sayers Football
80 A. J. Foyt Auto racing
81 Jimmy Connors Tennis
82 Bobby Hull Ice hockey
83 Honus Wagner Baseball
84 Man o' War Horse racing
85 Maurice Richard Ice hockey
86 Otto Graham Football
87 Henry Armstrong Boxing
88 Joe Namath Football
89 Rogers Hornsby Baseball
90 Richard Petty Auto racing
91 Bob Beamon Track and field
92 Mario Andretti Auto racing
93 Don Hutson Football
94 Bob Cousy Basketball
95 George Blanda Football
96 Michael Johnson Track and field
97 Citation Horse racing
98 Don Budge Tennis
99 Sam Snead Golf
100 Jack Johnson Boxing

Athlete statistics[edit]

Additional SportsCentury episodes[edit]


Coaches, owners, and other personalities[edit]

Games, teams, and other special episodes[edit]

Special episodes[edit]

SportsCentury: Greatest Games of the 20th Century[edit]

"Greatest Games" was a top ten countdown of the best games/matches voted on from a wide variety of team and individual sports.

  1. "The Greatest Game Ever Played" – (1958 NFL Championship): Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants (1958)
  2. The Shot Heard 'Round the WorldBobby Thomson's home run (1951)
  3. Super Bowl IIINew York Jets defeat Baltimore Colts (1969)
  4. Miracle on IceU.S.A defeats U.S.S.R. (1980)
  5. "Thrilla in Manila" – Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier (1975)
  6. "Ice Bowl" – Green Bay vs. Dallas (1967)
  7. Game 6 of the 1975 World SeriesCarlton Fisk's home run (1975)
  8. Tiger Woods wins the Masters (1997)
  9. Willis Reed and Knicks beat Lakers in Game 7 (1970)
  10. Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon thriller (1980)

SportsCentury: Greatest Coaches of the 20th Century[edit]

"Greatest Coaches" was a top ten countdown of the best coaches voted on from a wide variety of team sports

  1. Vince Lombardi
  2. John Wooden
  3. Red Auerbach
  4. Dean Smith
  5. Bear Bryant
  6. John McGraw
  7. George Halas
  8. Don Shula
  9. Paul Brown
  10. Knute Rockne

SportsCentury: Greatest Dynasties[edit]

SportsCentury: Most Influential Individuals[edit]

Another top ten countdown special, focusing on influential figures in sports during the twentieth century, namely off-the-field contributors.

  1. Branch Rickey
  2. Pete Rozelle
  3. Roone Arledge
  4. Marvin Miller
  5. Kenesaw Mountain Landis
  6. David Stern
  7. Avery Brundage
  8. Walter O'Malley
  9. George Halas
  10. Mark McCormack

SportsCentury: The Year in Review[edit]

Also included in the overall production was "SportsCenter of the Decade", a series of six two-hour programs (1900–1949, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s). Each episode was presented as a fictional episode of SportsCenter, in the way ESPN would have covered the events at the time (styles, studio/production design, and other various pop culture references).[12]


  1. ^ Jenner changed her first name to Caitlyn due to gender transition in 2015.[8]


  1. ^ Stewart, Larry (January 22, 1999). "ESPN May Have Best Shows of Century". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 16, 2019.
  2. ^ " ESPN's SportsCentury panel".
  3. ^ "SportsCentury Episode list". TV Guide. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  4. ^ Miller, James and Shales, Tom, Those Guys Have All the Fun, Little Brown & Co., 2011, pgs. 420–422
  5. ^ "Promoter takes issue with SportsCentury piece". ESPN. news services. January 13, 2005. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  6. ^ Gardner, Eriq (July 6, 2010). "ESPN scores TKO against Don King defamation lawsuit". Reuters. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  7. ^ 59th Annual Peabody Awards, May 2000.
  8. ^ Buzz Bissinger (June 1, 2015). "Introducing Caitlyn Jenner". Vanity Fair. Retrieved June 1, 2015.
  9. ^ [user-generated source]
  10. ^ "SportsCentury Episodes - SportsCentury Full Episode Guides on ESPN Classic |". Archived from the original on 2010-07-26.
  11. ^ "Sports Century: Bill Veeck".
  12. ^ " SportsCentury is huge undertaking".