The Year 2020 in Sports

A year filled with immeasurable joy, inconceivable pain and loss; 2020 is a year most of us would rather never speak of again. But as in all tough years, sports has a unique way of keeping us together even when miles apart. Let’s travel back in time and journey through the year 2020 in sports.

A Life Before The Pandemic

“I feel fortunate and blessed to be out here and to be healthy and to play. I have been playing for so long and been through so much and I’m happy to be doing something I love.”

Women’s tennis player Serena Williams after her win in Auckland in January. She defeated fellow American Jessica Pegula.

A life before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything seems like a distant memory to most. But there was a time where stadiums across the world were jam-packed with cheering fans, football games weren’t played on a random Tuesday afternoon, and bubble cities were not needed. Before COVID-19, sports fans were seeing history being made before their eyes. From LSU’s unprecedented championship run to Serena Williams’s first WTA title since 2017, fans were treated to some amzing moments. At least in the sporting world, it seemed like 2020 was going to be a year for the history books. However, just a few weeks into the new year, 2020 would harshly remind us of the impermanence of life. A reminder that would affected the world of sports in more than one way.

A memorial for Los Angeles Lakers player and Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant outside of Lower Merion High School.
Photo credits: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

On January 26th, the world was rocked as they learned of the tragic death of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. The two were among nine victims of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Just the night before, Bryant congratulated Lebron James on passing him on the all-time scoring list. His death came as a sudden surprises to athletes, fans, and celebrities all over the world. Tributes would follow, then his funeral. No matter how you may feel about him personally, the world’s light was dimmed when Kobe and Gianna’s life was taken from them.

“He wanted to be the best basketball player he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother I could be.”

Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service in February.

Of course, life moves on after heartbreak and that’s what the world of sports did. Even after such a loss as this, there were still moments for joy for sports fans around the world. The month of February provided excitement for all to share in.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid hugs Terry Bradshaw as he’s receiving the Lombardi trophy. His team defeated the San Francisco 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl 54.
Photo credit: Chris O’Meara/AP Photos

There is nothing like finally getting rewarded for consistent hard work. Andy Reid finally had his time come, as his Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20. A win that included a 21-0 run in the last nine minutes of the game to seal the deal. Fifteen years prior, Reid was the head coach of a Philadelphia Eagles team that was defeated by the New England Patriots. Touted as one of the hardest working coaches in the NFL, his players and assistants wanted this win more for Reid than for the team.

“We wanted to get him that trophy because he deserved it. The work he puts in day in and day out… I don’t think he sleeps. I try to beat him in and I never can. He is someone that works harder than anyone I’ve ever known, and he deserved [this]. I’m glad that we could get that trophy for him.”

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Andy Reid after the win.

Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs wasn’t the only new winner in sports. The day prior American women’s tennis player Sofia Kenin won her maiden grand slam at the Australian Open, defeating Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. She also became the youngest American to win in Melbourne since countrywoman Serena Williams’s victory in 2002. 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts won in baseball free agency, joining the already stacked Los Angeles Dodgers in a blockbuster trade. With so many wonderful things happening in sports, no one was prepared for the blindside hit 2020 would give in March. The hit that changed sports as we know it.

Together at Home

“I wish I would have taken this thing more seriously and I hope everyone else will do so because we can do it together. Take care and stay safe.”

Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert after testing positive for COVID-19. His positive result led to the postponement of the Jazz-Thunder game, and eventually the NBA season.

The disease known as COVID-19 had already affected countries like China, Japan, and Australia. Soon enough, it made its way to the United States, making its impact known to Americans. A month prior, people were parading the streets after a Chiefs Super Bowl win. No one expected the world to come to a complete standstill 30 days later. It was the NBA, then the Olympics, then the MLB, then tennis, then collegiate sports. The domino effect had started and soon live sports were absent from our television. No busted brackets, no 400 feet dingers, no forehand winners down the line. The world of sports was forced to adjust to an Earth with COVID-19. The road back to a normal life started by staying at home; fans and athletes found a way to stay entertained.

Poster for the ESPN films documentary, The Last Dance, detailing Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls

The Last Dance provided sports fans the content they so craved. This Emmy-winning documentary focused on the career of Michael Jordan, with the primary focus being on Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls. In a time without live sports, this was the boost many fans needed. Several people tuned into the live airing of episodes, the first on April 19th bringing in 5.79 million live viewers. The Last Dance was also the standing bearer of how fans would consume sports content for the foreseeable future. With digital media consumption taking a huge spike during quarantine months, sports would soon have to follow suit. Athletes would tap into their tech-savviness and go onto Instagram live or stream on Twitch. Athletes would interact with fans through gaming, chatting and even music. In a time were people wanted to stay connected while apart, the world of sports was able to adjust to the times ahead.

“It’s really difficult to do, even without fans, in a safe and effective manner. For us, it was trying to continue to try and put on the product and do it as safely as possible, and we feel like we’ve been able to do that.”

WWE Executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque on continuing to produce live television during the pandemic.

While most major sports and entertainment outlet put a halt on live content, the WWE plowed through. Their shows provided the precedent for other sports leagues for how to operate in a COVID-19 ridden world; an empty arena in a bubble city. Wrestling fans wondered if WWE’s biggest production, Wrestlemania, would go on. It did, but it was vastly different. A two day event, the pay-per-view was moved to Orlando at their Performance Center. The normal glitz and glamour of Wrestlemania was replaced by eerie silence. Should sports continue in 2020, athletes and fans would have to adjust to the harsh reality of empty arenas for the foreseeable future.

A Restless World

“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Aurora, California

2020 presented challenges other than the pandemic. In May, Minnesota resident George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police officers. Two months prior, Kentucky resident Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her home during a botched police raid. What would follow would be weeks of protests and civil unrest, as many called on athletes to speak out and against police brutality. The world was crying for help and athletes were among those on the front lines. Many took to social media, posting donation links, protest resources and helping people get registered to vote. Others like Philadelphia Eagles safety Rodney McLeod went to protests around the country.

Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris was vocal on social media regarding Taylor’s death and was one of 1,000 people to sign a petition to end qualified immunity for people in public service positions. Harris is also a player representative for the NBA’s social justice coalition. Local and national athletes used their newfound time at home to help support the lives of Black people.

Sports and social injustice have never been mutually exclusive, with this year completely wiping away that perceived line. With normal life on pause, athletes were thrust into a world so many of us live every day: a world of injustice and pain. In solidarity in showing the world that is a movement and not a moment, athletes would carry their protests into their respective sports as live events slowly returned.

A New Norm

The NBA bubble stadium at Wide World of Sports in Orlando.

Everyone and everything on this planet was forced to adjust to this pandemic. Gone are the days of 100,000 plus screaming fans in a stadium cheering in a stadium. The days of drunk belly-flopping into tables at tailgates? Gone. How we enjoyed live sports was forever changed by this pandemic. The NBA was the first major sport to return, as the season restarted in July. Taking after the WWE model, the season would be finished in Orlando, Florida at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. Constant testing, wearing masks when not playing, and social distancing became the new norm for athletes. Everything that was traditional about sports was gone. But as everyone did, sports had to adjust to COVID-19.

This has been a period of learning. I think it’s forced us to think differently and innovate, and we’ll look at that and see how we implement it going forward.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the challenges COVID-19 presented.

While the NBA chose an atypical approach, the NFL took a more traditional approach to their 2020 season. The NFL was arguably the only sports league with ample amount of time to adjust to the pandemic. Despite having the draft in April— which was held virtually— the NFL had time to plan out their season. What came out of the NFL planning was very little: no preseason, extended training camp and the start date was September 10th. Like the other major sports, there was to be little to no contact outside of playing, including the ever popular jersey swap. Unlike the other major sports, however, the NFL has had several hitches to their season. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their bye week due to an outbreak within the Tennessee Titans organization. The San Francisco 49ers were forced to move to Arizona for home games due to the pandemic. Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Dez Bryant tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of a game. The organization with seemingly the most time to figure out how to adjust to the new norm was rocked at every turn, proving that dealing with this disease was not easy.

New Sports, No Problem

New look sports still provided plenty of entertainment for sports-deprived fans to enjoy. The Philadelphia Flyers returned to the playoffs this year as the first seed for the first time in 20 years. They did it in style too: sweeping their round robin opponents, including a victory over the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even in a tough stretch for Philadelphia sports fans, the Flyers provided a light and some excitement for the city.

Flyers players celebrate after a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during NHL round robin.

The Year of the Underdog

“It’s probably a bigger chance for all of us to win our first slam, but basically the things did not change that much.”

Men’s tennis player Dominic Thiem on the absence of the Big 3 from the US Open

It’s not often where the top teams and athletes are considered underdogs. That was the chance several times this year. In New York, the first few days of September are ruled by tennis, as the US Open is played at that time of year. With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal absent from Flushing Meadows, it was all but certain that Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic would take the crown in New York. Cruise control turned into a screeching halt as Djokovic would get disqualified from the event during his match against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta in the fourth round. With all of the Big 3 absent, the stage was set for a young tennis player to breakthrough.

Dominic Thiem after his five set victory over German Alexander Zverev in the US Open final. Photo credits: Seth Wenig/AP Photos

Dominic Thiem would rise to the occasion and win his maiden slam in New York. Thiem was the first man in 71 years to win a US Open title from a 2 set to love deficit. He defeated German tennis player and friend Alexander Zverev in five sets in an imperfect match decided by the quelling of nerves.

“I definitely want to extend some advice to all the kids out there: keep dreaming big. These opportunities, they’re closer than you think.”

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Brett Phillips after his walkoff hit in Game 4 of the World Series

The World Series was an thrilling matchup between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Full of twists and turns, the Series did not disappoint in helping some unlikely heroes to rise. In Game 4 of the World Series, the Rays were down 7-6 in the ninth inning. It looked like the Dodgers had the win sealed, but Rays outfielder Brett Phillips had other ideas.

Phillips was 0-for-5 in the postseason before he singled to right field on a 1-2 pitch for Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Fellow Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena would make it home, despite falling, and would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A person who only had 20 at-bats for the Tampa Bay Rays would keep their chances for a title alive. Although the Dodgers would go on and become World Series champions for the first time since 1988, Phillips was the story the underdogs in the world needed to see.

She’s The Man

“That’s what (Vanderbilt coaches) have done the entire time. It was (based on) if I’m good enough to do it. It wasn’t because I was a girl.” 

Vanderbilt placekicker Sarah Fuller on why Vanderbilt chose her for the job

2020 was a historical year for women in sports. When COVID-19 struck the Vanderbilt University football program, the team was in need of a kicker. The Commodores would find their unsung hero on the women’s soccer team, her name being Sarah Fuller. Fuller was the first female player to ever play in Power 5 football game as a placekicker. She would play her first game against the Missouri Tigers. Her appearance on the field sent shock waves on social media, bringing in praise and criticism. Regardless of how anyone feels about the role of women in sports, Fuller’s leg set the precedent for future female football players.

Vanderbilt placekicker Sarah Fuller in her uniform.
Photo Credits: Vanderbilt Athletics

Women made their splash in other sports, as well. The WNBA played their entire season in the bubble city of Bradenton, Florida at IMG Academy. At first, the accommodations at the “Wubble” paled in comparison to their NBA counterparts. Not only did they have to play under strange and stressful conditions, WNBA players also had to fight for proper working conditions. Like the NBA, the WNBA choose to highlight the civic unrest the United States was— and still— going through. Despite having several obstacles placed in their way, the WNBA completed their season without a hitch— or COVID-19 outbreak in pandemic-ridden Florida— and crowned the Seattle Storm WNBA champions. Average viewership for women’s basketball actually rose 68% from the previous season. Doubleheaders on ESPN’s main channel, live streams across several platforms and 87 nationally televised games contributed to the rise. The viewership rise is also eyebrow-raising because women’s basketball was competing with every major sport in the U.S. and the ladies passed the test with flying colors.

Seattle Storm player celebrating after Finals win over the Las Vegas Aces.
Photo Credits: Chris O’Meara/AP Photos

“I thought it would be a big deal, but it’s beyond my expectations. But it’s also a testament to where we are. People are looking for hope. People are looking for inspiration. I’m happy to be a part of it.” 

Kim Ng after being named the Miami Marlins general manager, the first female general manger of an American male sports franchise.

A Look To The Future

2020 is a year most people would like to never be discussed again. But even in the constant pain this year has put people through, there were still moments of pure joy and excitement, thanks to the world of sports. The resilience of people points to hope for a better future and while life may never go back to “normal,” sports has done an amazing job of changing the norm.
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