ESPN SportsCentury (1999–2007)


ESPN SportsCentury (TV Series 1999–2007)

A biography series counting down the 50 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century. It was expanded to include other athletes, personalities, and notable moments in sports history.
IMDb   7.7 /10
Creator Chip Rives
Creator Scott Henry
Creator Mark Angotti
Creator Michael Husain
Release Date1999-01-21
GenreDocumentary, Biography, History, Sport
Content Rating
Awards1 win.
CompanyESPN (Entertainment & Sports Programming Network)
Chris Fowler
Chris Fowler
Self - Host / ... 49 episodes, 1999-2005
Self / ... 44 episodes, 1999-2004
Edwin Pope
Edwin Pope
Self 37 episodes, 1999-2005
Self 37 episodes, 1999-2004
Self 34 episodes, 1999-2006
Self 32 episodes, 1999-2006
Self 32 episodes, 1999-2005
Leonard Koppett
Leonard Koppett
Self 29 episodes, 1999-2004
Self / ... 28 episodes, 1999-2005
Peter Golenbock
Peter Golenbock
Self 26 episodes, 1999-2004
Frank Deford
Frank Deford
Self / ... 25 episodes, 1999-2006
Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson
Self 23 episodes, 1999-2004
Ron Borges
Ron Borges
Self 22 episodes, 1999-2006
Bob Ryan
Bob Ryan
Self 21 episodes, 1999-2005
Self 21 episodes, 1999-2004
Robert W. Creamer
Robert W. Creamer
Self 21 episodes, 1999-2003
Self / ... 20 episodes, 1999-2006
Self / ... 20 episodes, 1999-2004


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, 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.


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 number one was a generational decision, not a historical one. Babe Ruth deserved it more."

Don King lawsuit

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 an 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."

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".


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

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

1Michael JordanBasketball
2Babe RuthBaseball
3Muhammad AliBoxing
4Jim BrownFootball
5Wayne GretzkyIce hockey
6Jesse OwensTrack and field
7Jim ThorpeMultiple sports
8Willie MaysBaseball
9Jack NicklausGolf
10Babe ZahariasMultiple sports
11Joe LouisBoxing
12Carl LewisTrack and field
13Wilt ChamberlainBasketball
14Hank AaronBaseball
15Jackie RobinsonBaseball
16Ted WilliamsBaseball
17Magic JohnsonBasketball
18Bill RussellBasketball
19Martina NavratilovaTennis
20Ty CobbBaseball
21Gordie HoweIce hockey
22Joe DiMaggioBaseball
23Jackie Joyner-KerseeTrack and field
24Sugar Ray RobinsonBoxing
25Joe MontanaFootball
26Kareem Abdul-JabbarBasketball
27Jerry RiceFootball
28Red GrangeFootball
29Arnold PalmerGolf
30Larry BirdBasketball
31Bobby OrrIce hockey
32Johnny UnitasFootball
33Mark SpitzSwimming
34Lou GehrigBaseball
35 SecretariatHorse racing
36Oscar RobertsonBasketball
37Mickey MantleBaseball
38Ben HoganGolf
39Walter PaytonFootball
40Lawrence TaylorFootball
41Wilma RudolphTrack and field
42Sandy KoufaxBaseball
43Julius ErvingBasketball
44Bobby JonesGolf
45Bill TildenTennis
46Eric HeidenSpeed skating, cycling
47Edwin MosesTrack and field
48Pete SamprasTennis
49O. J. SimpsonFootball
50Chris EvertTennis

SportsCentury: 51–100

51Rocky MarcianoBoxing
52Jack DempseyBoxing
53Rafer JohnsonTrack and field
54Greg LouganisDiving
55Mario LemieuxIce hockey
56Pete RoseBaseball
57Bill ShoemakerHorse racing
58Elgin BaylorBasketball
59Billie Jean KingTennis
60Walter JohnsonBaseball
61Stan MusialBaseball
62Jerry WestBasketball
63Satchel PaigeBaseball
64Sammy BaughFootball
65Althea GibsonTennis, golf
66Eddie ArcaroHorse racing
67Bob GibsonBaseball
68Al OerterTrack and field
69Bonnie BlairSpeed skating
70Dick ButkusFootball
71Roberto ClementeBaseball
72Bo JacksonFootball, baseball
73Josh GibsonBaseball
74Deion SandersFootball, baseball
75Dan MarinoFootball
76Barry SandersFootball
77Cy YoungBaseball
78Bob MathiasTrack and field
79Gale SayersFootball
80A. J. FoytAuto racing
81Jimmy ConnorsTennis
82Bobby HullIce hockey
83Honus WagnerBaseball
84Man o' WarHorse racing
85Maurice RichardIce hockey
86Otto GrahamFootball
87Henry ArmstrongBoxing
88Joe NamathFootball
89Rogers HornsbyBaseball
90Richard PettyAuto racing
91Bob BeamonTrack and field
92Mario AndrettiAuto racing
93Don HutsonFootball
94Bob CousyBasketball
95George BlandaFootball
96Michael JohnsonTrack and field
97 CitationHorse racing
98Don BudgeTennis
99Sam SneadGolf
100Jack JohnsonBoxing

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
  • 89 male
  • 8 female
  • 3 thoroughbred horses

Additional SportsCentury episodes


  • Affirmed & Alydar
  • Andre Agassi
  • Lyle Alzado
  • Lance Armstrong
  • Arthur Ashe
  • Charles Barkley
  • Chuck Bednarik
  • Albert Belle
  • Johnny Bench
  • Yogi Berra
  • Moe Berg
  • Barry Bonds
  • Terry Bradshaw
  • Tom Brady
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Roy Campanella
  • Jennifer Capriati
  • Steve Carlton
  • Hurricane Carter
  • Rubin Carter
  • Roger Clemens
  • Cynthia Cooper
  • Jim Craig
  • John Daly
  • Ernie Davis
  • Oscar De La Hoya
  • Dale Earnhardt
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

  • Dennis Eckersley
  • John Elway
  • Brett Favre
  • Bob Feller
  • Mark Fidrych
  • Charlie Finley
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Peggy Fleming
  • Tim Flock
  • Curt Flood
  • Richmond Flowers
  • Doug Flutie
  • Cheryl Ford
  • George Foreman
  • Bevo Francis
  • Joe Frazier
  • Dan Gable
  • Kevin Garnett
  • Zina Garrison
  • Mark Gastineau
  • Frank Gifford
  • Jeff Gordon
  • Steffi Graf
  • Red Grange
  • Rocky Graziano
  • Hank Greenberg
  • Florence Griffith Joyner
  • Marvin Hagler

  • Dorothy Hamill
  • Mia Hamm
  • Connie Hawkins
  • Evander Holyfield
  • Paul Hornung
  • Sam Huff
  • Allen Iverson
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Dan Jansen
  • Bruce Jenner
  • Derek Jeter
  • Nile Kinnick
  • Anna Kournikova
  • Michelle Kwan
  • Don Larsen
  • Sugar Ray Leonard
  • Ray Lewis
  • Eric Lindros
  • Sonny Liston
  • Nancy Lopez
  • Jerry Lucas
  • Karl Malone
  • Peyton Manning
  • Pete Maravich
  • Roger Maris
  • Billy Martin (2-part)
  • Pedro Martínez
  • Gene Mauch

  • Bill Mazeroski
  • John McEnroe
  • Mark McGwire
  • Denny McLain
  • Jim McMahon
  • Rick Mears
  • Phil Mickelson
  • Archie Moore
  • Randy Moss
  • Alonzo Mourning
  • Greg Norman
  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Terrell Owens
  • Pelé
  • Brian Piccolo
  • Jimmy Piersall
  • Jacques Plante
  • Gary Player
  • Jim Plunkett
  • Cal Ripken, Jr
  • Frank Robinson
  • Andy Roddick
  • Dennis Rodman
  • Seabiscuit
  • Curt Schilling
  • Willie Shoemaker
  • Emmitt Smith
  • Seattle Slew

  • Sammy Sosa
  • Latrell Sprewell
  • Bart Starr
  • Casey Stengel
  • Tony Stewart
  • Darryl Strawberry
  • Maurice Stokes
  • Picabo Street
  • Isiah Thomas
  • Pat Tillman
  • Lee Trevino
  • Mike Tyson
  • Al Unser, Sr.
  • Bill Vukovich
  • Bill Walton
  • Bud Wilkinson
  • Chris Webber
  • Reggie White
  • Jayson Williams
  • Venus & Serena Williams
  • Tyrone Willingham
  • Tiger Woods
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Sources

Coaches, owners, and other personalities

  • Sparky Anderson
  • Red Auerbach
  • Bobby Bowden
  • Larry Brown
  • Bear Bryant
  • Al Davis

  • Woody Hayes
  • Phil Jackson
  • Willie Jeffries
  • Don King
  • Bob Knight
  • Mike Krzyzewski

  • Tom Landry
  • Vince Lombardi
  • Bill Parcells
  • Rick Pitino
  • Pete Rozelle
  • Adolph Rupp

  • Don Shula
  • Dean Smith
  • George Steinbrenner
  • Bill Veeck
  • Dick Vermeil
  • John Wooden

Games, teams, and other special episodes

  • 1972 Olympic Men's Basketball Final
  • 1977 British Open
  • Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals ("The Flu Game")
  • Ball Four
  • Epic in Miami (Chargers vs. Dolphins)
  • New York Yankees
  • Jerry's Cowboys
  • Bears 46 defense
  • Villanova vs. Georgetown (1985 NCAA Championship)
  • Disciples of Jackie Robinson
  • 1999 Ryder Cup

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.

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

SportsCentury: Greatest Dynasties

  • New York Yankees
  • Boston Celtics
  • Montreal Canadiens
  • John Wooden's UCLA Bruins (1960s and 1970s)
  • Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team (1946–1949)
  • Dallas Cowboys (1990s)
  • Atlanta Braves (1990s)
  • Chicago Bulls (1990s)
  • San Francisco 49ers (1980s)

SportsCentury: Most Influential Individuals

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

SportsCentury: The Year in Review

  • 1980 Year in Review
  • 1981 Year in Review
  • 1982 Year in Review
  • 1983 Year in Review
  • 1984 Year in Review
  • 1985 Year in Review
  • 1986 Year in Review
  • 1987 Year in Review
  • 1988 Year in Review
  • 1989 Year in Review

  • 1990 Year in Review
  • 1991 Year in Review
  • 1992 Year in Review
  • 1993 Year in Review
  • 1994 Year in Review
  • 1995 Year in Review
  • 1996 Year in Review
  • 1997 Year in Review
  • 1998 Year in Review
  • 1999 Year in Review

  • 2000 Year in Review
  • 2001 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).