Game-Changing Innovations in Sports


Most of the time here at IdeaScale, we post crowdsourcing and innovation management thought pieces and best practices. As a nerd in that space, I gobble those up. But I also moonlight as a sports nerd. So, as I was watching the Olympics last week, specifically the high jump, I was reminded that innovation isn’t only relevant to companies, non-profits and government organizations. Innovation is constantly changing the sports we all love, too.

Like “a fish flopping in a boat”

Dflopick Fosbury was a mediocre high school high jumper in the early 60s. As a sophomore, he had trouble even qualifying for high school track meets. Five years later, he was an Olympic gold medalist and Olympic record holder in the high jump. How? A method now known as the Fosbury Flop, an innovation that forever changed the sport of high jumping.

Like most outliers, Fosbury benefited from serendipity. In the early 1960s, most high jump pits were being converted from sand to a softer foam rubber. Unhappy with the body position and coordination required by the dominant techniques of the time, Fosbury was enabled to experiment with a technique that resulted in him landing on his back after clearing the bar.

After a bit of tinkering, the Fosbury Flop was born. It wasn’t immediately embraced, as is the case with most game-changing innovations. A local newspaper covering one of his high school track meets said that Fosbury looked like “a fish flopping in a boat.”

However, now more than 50 years after Fosbury first started developing it, the Fosbury Flop is still the overwhelmingly dominant high-jumping technique. If you’re unfamiliar with what it looks like, watch Canada’s Derek Drouin use it to win the gold medal in Rio last week.

The Forward Pass

the forward passIn America, the NFL is gargantuan. The Super Bowl is perennially the most-watched broadcast in the United States. In fact, of the 20 most-watched broadcasts in American history, 18 of them are Super Bowls. Only the M*A*S*H and Cheers finales break up the monopoly.

But the game as we know it today wouldn’t be without the innovation of the forward pass.

More than 100 years ago, American football looked much more like rugby. The ball would be snapped, and a bunch of big guys wearing sorry excuses for pads would run into each other until someone tackled the ball carrier. The dust would clear, hopefully everyone would still be alive, and they’d do it again.

In 1906, following an exceptionally dangerous year in which 18 players had been killed, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in, committing to making the game safer. A meeting of 60 schools — football was pretty much only played at the college level at that time — resulted in a variety of rule changes, one of which was the legalization of the forward pass. The game was to become more about speed and finesse than beating each other up. Although teams had experimented with the forward pass for more than 30 years, it was its legalization that truly set us on the path to today’s NFL.

Now in the NFL, quarterbacks rule the league. In fact, in the last 16 NFL Drafts, a quarterback has been the No. 1 pick in 12 of them.

Data in Sports

data in sports Many industries are paralyzed by convention. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The sports world is one of the worst offenders. However, as methods of collecting and analyzing data improve, more and more professional teams, leagues and players are paying more attention, and ultimately using it to change years of tradition.

In the NBA, teams have put sensors on basketballs and players to track live action, compiling the distance they cover in any given game or practice. They use this data to advocate for more rest, more days between games and a longer All-Star break.

This is happening even in baseball, a sport more tied to its tradition than any other major American sport. The tactics made popular by the movie “Moneyball” have led many Major League teams to rethink how they analyze which players to put on the field. Some of these tactics helped the Boston Red Sox break the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004.

In golf, also a game that holds tight to its tradition, players no longer rely solely on feel when hitting a new golf club. Phil Mickelson, 42-time winner on the PGA Tour, tests out new clubs at Callaway’s Performance Center while wearing goggles — yes, goggles — that block part of his vision so he can’t see the ball after impact. He then takes the ball flight data and analyzes it afterward. These methods have helped him remain one of the top players in the world well into his 40s.

These are just a few examples of the use of data to improve performance, and as technology continues to advance, and acceptance continues to broaden, there will be many, many more to come.

The bottom line is that innovation isn’t just for the board room. It’s all around us, even on the field, court or course. Where else do you see it? What did I miss? Comment below with my omissions and your additions.

This blog post is part of a series authored by IdeaScale employees. It showcases how they’re thinking about crowdsourcing and innovation as part of their daily routine. Feel free to ask questions or make comments.

This post is by Matt Paulson, Government Innovation Architect at IdeaScale.


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