Retrocon 2024

Sports in the '80s: How Would They Measure Up Today?

"Basketball" (CC BY 2.0) by chillihead

A lot can change in 40 years. And it certainly has in the world of pro-sports. In fact, anyone being beamed forward, Back to the Future-style, to today would find so many aspects of their favorite sports quite unrecognizable. And it’s not just aspects of the sports themselves that have changed out of all recognition. The whole landscape has too from the sums of money involved to the media coverage. But let's start with a fundamental - the players themselves.

Bigger, stronger, faster

US sports like basketball and football have always been remarkable for the extraordinary physiques of the players, whether it’s a towering center or a 340-pound lineman who can complete a 40-yard dash in under five seconds. But back in the '80s players were a little more like normal human beings.

Sure, they were still exceptional, just the differences weren’t quite so pronounced. But two factors came into play - acknowledging the importance of sports nutrition and also the introduction of more rigorous training regimes for particular sports. So even an '80s superstar like Joe Montana could find themselves struggling to compete today.

"11. Joe Montana" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by KoryeLogan

Money, money, money

Next up is the huge difference in the economics of sports between four decades ago and today. It seems incredible to think that back in 1980 the average NFL player’s salary was around $78,000 a year according to the New York Times. Not a bad figure for the time but a long way from the multi-million dollar contracts that the top players sign today. Even the median salary for players now is around $800,000, more than a 1000% increase on the 1980 figure.

This great injection of money into all sports has been nothing short of phenomenal. It’s being demonstrated in far more than just players’ salaries too. The broadcast rights for all sports have reached an all-time high and many teams are also taking advantage of commercial sponsorship opportunities offered by the now-legal sportsbooks in many states. As more and more states start to allow sports betting, this is good news for fans too. For example, newcomers to the activity can take advantage of offers like the Superbook promo in Ohio which is available once it is open for business from January 2023 – a move that is set to introduce many more people to betting on their favorite sports and events.

Never miss a game

Last, but not least, back in the 1980s there were far fewer opportunities to watch sports unless you were actually there. Sure, some events were shown live on broadcast TV or as part of a general round-up of the day’s or week’s action. But now there are countless ways to watch online from live streams to YouTube videos of highlights or particularly exciting moments. There’s also a direct, if sometimes carefully curated, link with the players and teams themselves via social media giving previously unimaginable levels of access.

As to whether all these changes have made sports better or worse, opinions are divided. Some look back with nostalgia at a simpler time, others have embraced all the advances we have seen – and will continue to see into the future.

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