Genre Documentary
Written by Michael Husain (11 episodes, 2001-2006)
Pat Smith (1 episode, 1999)
Michael Douglas Callan (1 episode, 2001)
Michael Strom (unknown episodes)
Directed by Michael Husain (2 episodes, 2001-2005)
Michael Douglas Callan (1 episode, 2001)
Sean Waters (1 episode, 2006)
Presented by Chris Fowler
Composer(s) Geoff 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 (1 episode, 2003)
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 261
Cinematography Jim Grieco (87 episodes, 1999-2006)
Jared Manders (8 episodes, 2000-2005)
Doug Longwill (5 episodes, 2001-2004)
Running time 30—60 minutes
Production company(s) ESPN
Distributor ESPN, Inc.
Original network ESPN
Original release 1999 – 2007
Related shows Beyond the Glory

SportsCentury is an ESPN biography program that reviews the people and athletic 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,[1] 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.[2]


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."[3]

The list was dramatically North American-centric. Only one athlete in the Top 100 list, Martina Navratilova, was born outside of the United States or Canada. Australian cricketer Donald Bradman, "considered by many to be the pre-eminent sportsman of all time" was also omitted.[4] Bradman scored a lifetime average far in excess of average - 4.4 standard deviations above the mean, compared to Jordan's inferior 3.4 - leading to the statement that "no other athlete dominates an international sport to the extent that Bradman does cricket".[5] No soccer player was included in the rankings despite it being the world's most popular sport; Brazilian soccer player Pelé also scored further above average than did Jordan.[6] Baseball player Ty Cobb, appearing at 20 on the list, also ranked objectively above Jordan on the same ground.


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)

Michael Jordan was voted no. 1
Babe Ruth was voted no. 2
Muhammad Ali was voted no. 3
Number Athlete Sport
1 Jordan, MichaelMichael Jordan Basketball
2 Ruth, BabeBabe Ruth Baseball
3 Ali, MuhammadMuhammad Ali Boxing
4 Brown, JimJim Brown Football
5 Gretzky, WayneWayne Gretzky Ice hockey
6 Owens, JesseJesse Owens Track and field
7 Thorpe, JimJim Thorpe Multiple sports
8 Mays, WillieWillie Mays Baseball
9 Nicklaus, JackJack Nicklaus Golf
10 Zaharias, BabeBabe Zaharias Multiple sports
11 Louis, JoeJoe Louis Boxing
12 Lewis, CarlCarl Lewis Track and field
13 Chamberlain, WiltWilt Chamberlain Basketball
14 Aaron, HankHank Aaron Baseball
15 Robinson, JackieJackie Robinson Baseball
16 Williams, TedTed Williams Baseball
17 Johnson, MagicMagic Johnson Basketball
18 Russell, BillBill Russell Basketball
19 Navratilova, MartinaMartina Navratilova Tennis
20 Cobb, TyTy Cobb Baseball
21 Howe, GordieGordie Howe Ice hockey
22 DiMaggio, JoeJoe DiMaggio Baseball
23 Joyner-Kersee, JackieJackie Joyner-Kersee Track and field
24 Robinson, Sugar RaySugar Ray Robinson Boxing
25 Montana, JoeJoe Montana Football
26 Abdul-Jabbar, KareemKareem Abdul-Jabbar Basketball
27 Rice, JerryJerry Rice Football
28 Grange, RedRed Grange Football
29 Palmer, ArnoldArnold Palmer Golf
30 Bird, LarryLarry Bird Basketball
31 Orr, BobbyBobby Orr Ice hockey
32 Unitas, JohnnyJohnny Unitas Football
33 Spitz, MarkMark Spitz Swimming
34 Gehrig, LouLou Gehrig Baseball
35 Secretariat, Secretariat Horse racing
36 Robertson, OscarOscar Robertson Basketball
37 Mantle, MickeyMickey Mantle Baseball
38 Hogan, BenBen Hogan Golf
39 Payton, WalterWalter Payton Football
40 Taylor, LawrenceLawrence Taylor Football
41 Rudolph, WilmaWilma Rudolph Track and field
42 Koufax, SandySandy Koufax Baseball
43 Erving, JuliusJulius Erving Basketball
44 Jones, BobbyBobby Jones Golf
45 Tilden, BillBill Tilden Tennis
46 Heiden, EricEric Heiden Speed skating, cycling
47 Moses, EdwinEdwin Moses Track and field
48 Sampras, PetePete Sampras Tennis
49 Simpson, O. J.O. J. Simpson Football
50 Evert, ChrisChris Evert Tennis

SportsCentury: 51-100

Mario Lemieux was voted no. 55
Pete Rose was voted no. 56 despite serving a lifetime ban from baseball.
Number Athlete Sport
51 Marciano, RockyRocky Marciano Boxing
52 Dempsey, JackJack Dempsey Boxing
53 Johnson, RaferRafer Johnson Track and field
54 Louganis, GregGreg Louganis Diving
55 Lemieux, MarioMario Lemieux Ice hockey
56 Rose, PetePete Rose Baseball
57 Shoemaker, BillBill Shoemaker Horse racing
58 Baylor, ElginElgin Baylor Basketball
59 King, Billie JeanBillie Jean King Tennis
60 Johnson, WalterWalter Johnson Baseball
61 Musial, StanStan Musial Baseball
62 West, JerryJerry West Basketball
63 Paige, SatchelSatchel Paige Baseball
64 Baugh, SammySammy Baugh Football
65 Gibson, AltheaAlthea Gibson Tennis, golf
66 Arcaro, EddieEddie Arcaro Horse racing
67 Gibson, BobBob Gibson Baseball
68 Oerter, AlAl Oerter Track and field
69 Blair, BonnieBonnie Blair Speed skating
70 Butkus, DickDick Butkus Football
71 Clemente, RobertoRoberto Clemente Baseball
72 Jackson, BoBo Jackson Football, baseball
73 Gibson, JoshJosh Gibson Baseball
74 Sanders, DeionDeion Sanders Football, baseball
75 Marino, DanDan Marino Football
76 Sanders, BarryBarry Sanders Football
77 Young, CyCy Young Baseball
78 Mathias, BobBob Mathias Track and field
79 Sayers, GaleGale Sayers Football
80 Foyt, A. J.A. J. Foyt Auto racing
81 Connors, JimmyJimmy Connors Tennis
82 Hull, BobbyBobby Hull Ice hockey
83 Wagner, HonusHonus Wagner Baseball
84 o' War, ManMan o' War Horse racing
85 Richard, MauriceMaurice Richard Ice hockey
86 Graham, OttoOtto Graham Football
87 Armstrong, HenryHenry Armstrong Boxing
88 Namath, JoeJoe Namath Football
89 Hornsby, RogersRogers Hornsby Baseball
90 Petty, RichardRichard Petty Auto racing
91 Beamon, BobBob Beamon Track and field
92 Andretti, MarioMario Andretti Auto racing
93 Hutson, DonDon Hutson Football
94 Cousy, BobBob Cousy Basketball
95 Blanda, GeorgeGeorge Blanda Football
96 Johnson, MichaelMichael Johnson Track and field
97 Citation, Citation Horse racing
98 Budge, DonDon Budge Tennis
99 Snead, SamSam Snead Golf
100 Johnson, JackJack Johnson Boxing

Athlete statistics

By sport
  • Baseball: 22
  • Football: 20
  • Track/Field: 12
  • Basketball: 11
  • Tennis: 8
  • Boxing: 7
  • Hockey: 6
  • Golf: 6
  • Horse racing: 5 (2 jockeys, 3 horses)
  • Auto racing: 3
  • Swimming / Diving: 2
  • Speed skating: 2
  • Gymnastics: 1

By gender

Additional SportsCentury episodes


Coaches, owners, and other personalities

Games, teams, and other special episodes

Special episodes

SportsCentury: Greatest Games of the 20th Century

"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

"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. Phil Jackson
  6. John McGraw
  7. George Halas
  8. Don Shula
  9. Paul Brown
  10. Knute Rockne

SportsCentury: Greatest Dynasties

SportsCentury: Most Influential Individuals

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

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 his first name to Caitlyn due to gender transition in 2015.[8]


  2. "SportsCentury Episode list". TV Guide. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  3. Miller, James and Shales, Tom, Those Guys Have All the Fun, Little Brown & Co., 2011, pgs. 420-422
  4. Adams, Kathleen; et al. (4 March 2001). "Milestones". Time. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  5. Hutchins, Brett (2002). Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth. Cambridge University Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-521-82384-6.
  6. Shaw, John (27 February 2001). "Sir Donald Bradman, 92, Cricket Legend, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  7. 59th Annual Peabody Awards, May 2000.
  8. Buzz Bissinger (June 1, 2015). "Introducing Caitlyn Jenner". Vanity Fair. Retrieved June 1, 2015.


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