In a year that almost wasn’t for both professional and collegiate sports, everyone wondered who the odds would favor in each sport to win it all in the middle of a pandemic – if they did return. Predicting a champion, and placing bets for that matter, would be more difficult than ever before, right?
There’s never been such a thing as a safe bet but in a time where, at minimum, a star player could be taken out or, at worst, the whole team could be dismantled with little notice, there was no certainty of anything, even finishing the season. Rosters could be shortened, players could be done for the season, before playing at all – some opted out before the season started – or a game could be cancelled or forfeited minutes before game time. Each and every sport seemed up for grabs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, caring not of gender, nationality, ethnicity, political or religious views, healthy or not healthy when it chooses its host. In its first sighting in the United States, the pandemic caused the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to be completely cancelled and the then on-going NBA season was put on hold, while upcoming athletics at the time, ranging from as high as the professional level with the MLB and NFL to as low as pop-warner football and little league baseball, were then put in a state of limbo, unknowing of a start date, if one at all.
The NHL and NBA came up with an unusual yet effective contingency plan for their return, quarantining their players in a bubble in a single location to prevent outbreaks and fulfill the completions of their respective seasons. The NFL, MLB and college football chose different routes, and weren’t nearly as successful in their returns.
Almost immediately the MLB suffered from major outbreaks, causing the cancellation of a multitude of games across the league that were eventually made up, sometimes in stretches where teams played with minimal to no days off. For example, the Miami Marlins finished out their season playing 27 games in 23 days. The NFL and college football suffered much the same, again, causing the rescheduling of multiple games. The NFL had to go as far as rescheduling a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers several different times, eventually causing an unusual Wednesday matchup, which was something that hadn’t happened since 2012, when the New York Giants hosted the Dallas Cowboys in the kickoff game that season. College football, on the other hand, depending on the conference, rescheduled games as needed but a large portion were cancelled outright, including over a dozen bowl games.
So far, as each season that was either on-going or started in the year 2020 has come to a conclusion, the evidence has indicated that it was not only the strongest that survived but the odds-on favorites when a trophy was raised. Each team to win their respective championship was highly favored well before the interruption of the pandemic.
As early as June of 2019, the Tampa Bay Lighting were a +800 favorite to win the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. The Lighting defeated the Dallas Stars 4-2 in the series for the Stanley Cup, the franchise’s second title. Sports Illustrated had the Los Angeles Dodgers as the team with the second-best odds of winning the World Series (+400), which was just behind the New York Yankees (+350). It even goes as far as the PGA, with The Masters. As early as July 22, 2019, Dustin Johnson, the winner of the 2020 Masters Tournament, was a 12/1 favorite, tied with Tiger Woods (12/1) and behind Brooks Koepka (10/1).
As early as January 13 of last year, Clemson (9/4), Ohio State (3/1) and Alabama (6/1) were the top three favorites to win the national championship. All three were in the College Football Playoff and, on Monday night, Alabama once again won the national championship, their sixth under Nick Saban and their eighteenth overall.
And this weekend we will be even closer to crowning a Super Bowl champion as we enter the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. The early Super Bowl favorite going back to the day after last year’s Super Bowl? The Kansas City Chiefs, of course, who are the number one seed in the AFC and will be facing the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round this Sunday.
While the pandemic has completely disrupted our very existence, leaving the outcome of every day seemingly unpredictable, it’s left the ending result of nearly every sports season finale fairly predictable. The few team surprises fizzled – and usually with ease. Notre Dame got the lowly fourth spot in this year’s College Football Playoff but proved no match when two overly talented, and healthy rosters, in the likes of Clemson (before the playoff) and Alabama faced them. The Miami Heat made a valiant effort in the NBA Finals, or at least Jimmy Butler did, against the Los Angeles Lakers but proved no match for LeBron James and fellow talent, especially when a slew of injuries occurred for the Heat early in the series.
The Miami Marlins snuck into the MLB playoffs through an expansion and the team’s stately neighbors up north, the Tampa Bay Rays, made their way through the 2020 abnormal season through a unique style and approach to the game but proved no match for a bloated Dodgers lineup in the World Series. Ohio State got into the College Football Playoff through an addendum and a shortened season, playing fewer games than their opponent on Monday night, and yet still couldn’t contend against the NFL factory producing Alabama squad.
In a sports world pre-COVID, things seemed less predictable as far as the end result.
Before, the seasons were longer and the schedules didn’t change – in fact, they varied more – with no restrictions to strictly playing in conference games and keeping in closer proximity to opponents. There were no protocols, no masks, no bubbles, no quarantining. There were fans, lots of them. There was togetherness, a lot of it. There was more traveling, too. But in a season with an on-going pandemic at large, the best, the odds favorite, proved to be a safe bet in an unsafe time.
Why? Because when there was so much adversity to overcome, the best and most talented rosters persevered because they had the resources to do so. The teams that won had cupboards full of talent – they were built to sustain something like, of all things, a pandemic. In a normal year, there’s greater room for abnormality and unpredictability of who will overcome normal adversity, like winning a game. But as we all know, there was no such thing as normal adversity in 2020.