Let's cut to the chase: 2020 has been a difficult year.
A pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 Americans. A wave of protests unseen in decades. Anxieties over a bitterly contested presidential election.
The first 11 months of this year have been stressful, and so often we turn to sports as a distraction, an escape. The issues presented by COVID-19 made that impossible during the beginning stages of the pandemic.
We learned to be grateful for the games without them. And then sports came back — at first, drip by drip, followed by a deluge.
As Thanksgiving arrives and people take stock of what’s important in their lives, here are some things sports fans can give thanks for in a year unlike any other.
The idea of creating an environment to safely play games deserves the most thanks.
Several leagues opted for this route, along with rigorous testing procedures, to resume play while keeping the virus at bay. The NHL jumped right into the postseason with two bubbles initially, and the NBA played a few games — remember when the Phoenix Suns won all eight of theirs and still went home? — before starting its playoffs. The WNBA, NWSL, MLS and Premier Lacrosse League all adopted bubble formats.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James dunks against the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter during the NBA Finals, which were spent in a Florida bubble. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
Even Major League Baseball constructed playoff bubbles, which proved successful until Justin Turner’s positive test the day the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series. The NCAA has said it’s looking to sequester the Field of 64 (well, 68) for its men’s basketball tournament in Indiana.
College basketball season
The cancellation of March Madness was one of the first signs of the seriousness of the pandemic. A tradition of that magnitude evaporating seemingly overnight shook sports fans. But college basketball marks its return Wednesday.
The 2020-21 season won’t be smooth, as cancellations and postponements have already mired the first week of the season. Hopefully, conference play will run as safely as possible and March Madness will return.
While virtually every major league and marquee event endured brutal ratings decreases, the WNBA soared. Ratings went up by 68% for regular-season viewership, the league said.
Perhaps the WNBA and the networks learned a valuable lesson: If you put a fun product on television, people will watch. ESPN aired a record 37 games from the “wubble” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and the league appears ready to keep growing by embracing social media and online streaming.
Speaking of abbreviated seasons, the major men’s and women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. adjusted on the fly to create their own bubbles — the MLS neighboring the NBA at Disney World and the NWSL in Utah — and provide exciting tournaments to salvage their seasons. That gave players time to recuperate ahead of their fall seasons, which are currently underway.
Underdogs in college football
As the Power 5 conferences waffled on their decisions to play college football, lower-tier leagues went full steam ahead. The result was teams from the Group of Five, such as Louisiana-Lafayette, Coastal Carolina and independents like Liberty and BYU consistently appearing in the polls and, ultimately, the College Football Playoff rankings. It’s always fun to see underdogs get some shine.
While MLB and the players union bickered through veiled media leaks in April and May, the absence of baseball set in. A game nearly every day is something fans take for granted.
The 60-game sprint was exciting, and the seven-inning doubleheaders were a polarizing twist. It also made many fans appreciate the longevity of a normal campaign.
The designated hitter
One thing that should not depart from baseball’s 2020 season is the designated hitter. Pitchers should no longer hit, and while they might return to the plate in 2021, it likely will be a sticking point in the collective bargaining agreement negotiations next winter.
Football in the fall
Obviously, the traditional sports calendar went out the window. It was necessary to bring sports back. But football, especially at the professional level, hardly felt the impact in that regard.
So as fall arrived, it was appreciated that pigskin played on the TV while the leaves changed colors and drifted to the ground.
'The Last Dance'
A special thanks to ESPN and the team behind “The Last Dance” for advancing the release date of the documentary produced by Michael Jordan about his life, with a central focus on the 1997-98 season. The mid-April premiere was months before the originally scheduled June date but provided a sports-starved segment of society with fresh content to break down and debate for five weeks. It became appointment television and offered some sense of normalcy during a time of isolation and uncertainty.
That’s it. The Masters. We are thankful for the Masters.
On a serious note: Much like March Madness, no April Masters was one of the first holes felt by the sports shutdown. But without it, we wouldn’t have had the November Masters, one we’ll always remember – not for who won or what happened, but because of when it took place.
While the stable of young stars in the NBA, including rookie of the year Ja Morant, is something to be thankful for … this video of Morant feeding Memphis Zoo baby giraffe “Ja-Raffe” deserves even more gratitude.
Happy Friday! Here’s @JaMorant meeting Ja Raffe. You’re welcome. #Booppic.twitter.com/IZp5THmXQ2
While athletes couldn’t actually play each other, they virtually squared off. MLB players participated in an “MLB: The Show 20” tournament, and NBA players did the same for “NBA2K 20.”
As an industry — one worth more than $1 billion, per Forbes — esports continued growing in 2020, and several leagues were able to continue their seasons mostly uninterrupted by transitioning any in-person competitions to an online format. That gave esports a level of exclusivity, and several leagues saw dramatic leaps in viewership.
'Trades that lead to championships'
The Los Angeles Dodgers bench celebrates after right fielder Mookie Betts hit a home run during the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays during Game 6 of the World Series. (Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
This one is for fans of the Los Angeles teams that won championships in 2020. The Lakers traded for Anthony Davis; they won a title. The Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts; they won a title. Plus, both stars signed extensions to stay in LA for years to come (at least, the expectation is that Davis will do that soon).
Of course, the Dodgers' first World Series title in 32 years meant Clayton Kershaw finally won his first championship, giving baseball fans another reason to celebrate one of the greatest pitchers of a generation.
NHL alternate jerseys
All 31 NHL teams released new alternate jerseys for the upcoming season. Some people hate ’em, some people love ’em, but at least the NHL is trying here, people. Plus, a new sweater or two could suffice as a gift this holiday season for that puck-lover in your life.
'There’s always next year'
Never has this saying been more appropriate, even outside of sports. But it’s true. Even in 2020, the year that felt like it’d never end sometimes, there will be a next year for sports to rebound at full strength.
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