Sports Illustrated pegged dystopian present 30 years ago: Free-to-play ads, call-the-play apps & empty arenas

Playing front of virtual fans? That could never happen ... [grimace emoji]

Playing front of virtual fans? That could never happen … [grimace emoji]
Image: Getty Images

Happy 2021! Today is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of a story that’s worth revisiting, one of the most interesting stories ever to appear in the legendary pages of Sports Illustrated — and a work of fiction.


It was the cover story on the July 22, 1991, issue: “Sports In The Year 2001,” and the tale written by the late William Oscar Johnson begins on New Year’s Day, in the home of Ulysses S. Spectator, a Duluth, Minn., postal worker who serves as the narrator to guide fans of the then-present through the marvels of the sports world in the then-future. Which is the now-past. Got it?

Some of it, like any piece of speculative writing on the future, fell apart long before it had a chance to come true. Dan Quayle not only didn’t become president, he and George H.W. Bush were voted out of their offices just 16 months after Johnson’s piece was published. Brien Taylor never sniffed the big leagues with the Yankees. And there was not an Alaska gold rush in 1994 to lead to the creation of the NFL’s expansion Anchorage Caribou.


There also are some things that, 30 years later, induce a cringe upon reading, like Ulysses’ obsession with “Cheerleaders In Particularly Brief Miniskirts” and description of “jungle-animal sounds that occur on an average Sabbath in the NFL pits.”

Still, having held onto the paper copy of that magazine issue for all these years, and looked back at it from time to time, the dawn of 2021 is a good moment to look back and see how some of Johnson’s ideas have panned out, given an additional 20 years of time.

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First and foremost, the piece is premised on all sports moving off of networks and onto pay-per-view, controlled by the leagues and in cooperation with one another with a central control facility. Of course, “once known as Black Rock,” CBS headquarters in Manhattan remains Black Rock, but the reason that sports didn’t go to all-PPV is that Johnson didn’t think quite venally enough, somehow, about capitalism.

Instead of viewers paying to watch sports, we’ve all wound up paying for regional sports networks as part of our cable or streaming packages. This way, the payment doesn’t depend on anyone actually watching. If you’re a Knicks fan, and the Knicks suck, and you don’t want to watch every game they play (actually a common occurrence over the past 20 years), you’re still paying for the Madison Square Garden Network. Odds are that there are channels you’re paying for right now that you never even watch. Instead of pay-per-view, they just went to “fuck you, pay me.


On New Year’s Day in 2001, Ulysses settles in to watch the No. 1 Bowl, “the climax of a postseason elimination tournament among the eight best college teams.” At least we’ve gotten to four? It’s still very odd that in a sport with five supposed power conferences, at least one champion is left out of the national title picture every year, not to mention the Cincinnatis of the world.

That No. 1 Bowl pits the Notre Dame General Electrics against the Southern Cal Toshibas, and maybe we haven’t gotten there yet because the Supreme Court didn’t rule “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.”


But we did get the New York Red Bulls in MLS.

We’ve also gotten some legalized sports gambling, although not “in all 52 states,” as Johnson wrote. But thanks to the Internet, in places that have been enlightened enough to see the tax windfall that sports betting can generate, it is possible “to participate fully in the parimutuel systems of all the tracks around the country.” And yes, there is now a TV channel devoted just to horse racing, TVG.


Johnson was a lot further off on his notion that the NBA might have “128 teams in 30 countries … more popular than soccer ever was.” As much as the NBA has grown globally, it’s still an exclusively North American league, as are the NFL and Major League Baseball. And neither MLB nor the NBA have expanded their championship rounds to 11 or nine games.

We also haven’t reached a point yet of fans being paid for their attendance at games, nor stadiums with amusement parks that border on Star Trek holosuites — at least not really, although in 2001, I did buy a $10 ticket to the A-10 Tournament at the Spectrum which came with a hot dog, a soda, and two subway tokens, a combined $12 value that sort of meant I was getting $2 to fill the seat.


It also doesn’t necessarily register now, but one of the superfans Johnson described is “a guy in Baltimore who dresses like John the Baptist.” Baltimore didn’t get the NFL back until 1996.

The economics of a lot of this are fascinating both in the ideas and in the ways that capitalist America surpassed them. But there’s one piece of it that does ring very true…


“Say I call up a three-minute United Airlines commercial and watch it in its entirety. I am then automatically awarded a 50-cent bonus to be applied against any Tele-Pay charges I incur during my next NFL game.”

If you’ve ever watched an ad to get a booster in Candy Crush, one of a raft of “free-to-play” video games that offer bonuses for viewing commercials, you know that, in a way, this did come to pass.


And then there’s Common Huddle, a feature where fans could pay extra to get a copy of their favorite team’s playbook, and “four times every game … the screen flashes YOU BE THE QB! NOW!” and calls on the fans to vote, by plurality, for what play to run. Now, Johnny Manziel is joining a spring league where fans will call the plays, one of the most preposterous inventions of Johnson’s original work.

There was one other thing that seemed ridiculous in 1991, but now we’ve experienced.


“Home Invective is an inexpensive ($1 a game) state-of-the-art spectator involvement program, exclusive to baseball. Any advice, insults or obscenities fans yell at their TV screen are automatically and immediately piped into the crowd noise at the stadium.”

Somehow, this feature wound up being free. It was called Cheer At The Ballpark, and it’s part of how Major League Baseball created crowd noise in stadiums last season, when the dystopian companion to Johnson’s piece in that same issue, “What If They Held A Sporting Event and Nobody Came?” by Ron Firmite, really did come true.


Here’s hoping that this year, we can all get back to ballparks, arenas, and stadiums safely.

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