Even if you were to omit the first two and a half months of the year, 2020 would likely go down as one of, if not the biggest year in the history of sports.
Once COVID-19 truly hit the United States in March, it had an immense impact on the world as a whole that lingered through the end of the year.
Professional sports leagues weren’t exempt to the challenges created by the global pandemic, as seasons were postponed, massive events were canceled, and extensive practices and protocols were put in place to create a “new normal” of sorts.
Through it all, fans continued to turn to sports to get them through difficult times, and, as a result, witnessed a multitude of historic moments that likely could’ve covered an entire lifetime under normal circumstances.
As if all of the chaos from mid-March through the end of December wasn’t enough, there was still plenty that happened before the pandemic’s ripple effects truly began, as well.
Sports heroes were simultaneously born in front of our eyes, and taken away from us in an instant. Players became social activists, and pushed people to get better and think about their peers amid some of the nation’s darkest times.
As tough as it may seem to narrow down all of that into a countdown of just six items, it seems like the right thing to do for such an important time in both sports history and the country’s history.
Instead of counting down the “best” moments of 2020, or our “favorite” things that we watched throughout the year, it’s time to take a more serious approach.
So, to close the chapter on the year that was, it’s time to break down the most significant moments of 2020.
6. UFC returns to the Octagon on May 9 after taking just a few weeks off due to COVID-19, May 9, 2020
It may have been controversial at the time, and it may not have been a perfect execution from a COVID-19 protocols perspective. But, you have to give the UFC some credit for pulling off an entire PPV event as the world worked to regain control during the early stages of the pandemic.
Despite massive fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov not being able to compete due to travel restrictions, and all of the question marks surrounding the future of sports, UFC president Dana White took a risk that ultimately paid off in a big way.
His company was able to put on UFC 249 on May 9, just a few weeks after the promotion halted fights due to the coronavirus.
It may not seem like a massive deal to sports fans who don’t know much about MMA, but the event set the tone for a full seven months of fights spanning both the United States and “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, and propelled the UFC further into the spotlight in a time of massive uncertainty.
It requires tons of efforts, but allowed the UFC the chance to operate without competition for more than two months. If it were any of the “Big Four” leagues, this likely would have ranked even higher on the list.
5. Lakers win NBA Finals, completing the bubble format that multiple leagues utilized due to COVID-19, October 11, 2020
The “bubble” likely would have seemed like an insane idea if you had asked both fans and the leagues themselves to create one in 2019. But, 2020 turned the concept into a necessary reality, and saved the year for multiple leagues based in the United States.
The NBA and NHL both utilized bubble formats for their respective restarts in 2020, with the NHL opting for a dual-bubble set-up in Canada to host its postseason. Meanwhile, the WNBA utilized the bubble for its 2020 season, and MLB followed the NHL’s footsteps with a multi-bubble approach for its postseason, as well.
While each bubble’s completion was important in their own rights, the last game of the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat signaled the end of the bubble era, and goes down as a finish line of sorts on a sprint that many didn’t think was even possible a few months prior.
The execution of each bubble was a grind, just like 2020 was as a whole, and should be celebrated as a truly incredible feat in a year impacted by a global pandemic.
4. MLB begins its 2020 regular season, becoming the first of the United States’ “Big Four” sports leagues to return amid COVID-19 pandemic, July 23, 2020
MLB caught some flack for not getting their season started sooner in 2020, but the league evidently did something right by becoming the first of the country’s “Big Four” to return to action in July.
When players ran onto the field for the league’s first Opening Day game between the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees on July 23, 2020, it served as a historic moment for not only baseball, but the sports world as a whole.
It signaled a return to some sort of normalcy, no matter how odd it may have seemed with no fans in attendance and relative silence filling the Nationals’ ballpark. It got things rolling in the right direction, giving sports fans some hope as they wondered if the NBA, NHL, WNBA and more could pull it off shortly thereafter.
Most importantly, it gave people something to look forward to during a challenging year, and changed the course of history in a positive way, rather than the negatives that many will focus on when looking back on 2020.
Baseball has definitely taken lots of criticism in the 21st century, but it was incredibly significant how they were able to serve as the start of a resurgence of sorts for every sport.
3. Leagues postpone play after Bucks boycott playoff game vs. Magic, August 26, 2020
Sometimes, the most important thing an athlete can do may not take place on a basketball court, on a baseball or football field, or a sheet of ice. Their most significant contributions could come away from the game, evident by the impact the Milwaukee Bucks had during the NBA’s return to play in Orlando.
As the league looked to push through the end of the 2020 season/playoffs, citizens across the United States were calling for justice related to the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
One of the league’s teams wasn’t afraid to impact the league’s plans in its efforts to incite change, as the Bucks, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, boycotted Game 5 against the Magic in the first round of the postseason.
The move had a massive ripple effect, leading to postponements of playoff games and regular season games alike across the NBA, NHL, MLB, and WNBA. Leagues were forced to take more action to raise awareness for issues related to racial inequality, police brutality and voter turnout for the 2020 Presidential Election.
Players themselves made financial contributions throughout the season and had physical impacts with their presence at protests earlier in the summer, and emerged as both star athletes and superstar activists in the process.
In a year filled with so much news related to the pandemic, players were able to divert loads of the attention onto longstanding issues, and merge sports and politics to create actual change.
2. Kobe Bryant’s death, January 26, 2020
Given the length of the pandemic, this may seem like it happened in more than a year ago. But, it was just 11 months ago that the world lost one of its biggest sports heroes in a moment that shook the world to its core.
On January 26, 2020, the sports world learned about the tragic deaths of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, along with seven others who were on a helicopter that crashed in California.
In that moment, time seemingly stopped. Many, including fans, Bryant’s former teammates and coaches, and everyone in between, went into mourning as they reminisced on the joy Bryant brought them during his long, successful NBA career.
Leagues honored the basketball legend in a variety of ways, whether it was the NBA at regular season games across the league and a Bryant-inspired All-Star Game or the NFL at the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl.
Basketball royalty like Michael Jordan, LeBron James and more were brought to tears as they discussed Bryant’s life and longstanding legacy.
It was a tragic moment that started the year off on a low note, and unfortunately got lost in the shuffle for many as they dealt with COVID-19 and its various impacts. But, Bryant’s death loomed large in so many ways, and would have been a clear frontrunner for the most significant moment of the year if the pandemic had not hit like it did.
1. NBA postpones season after Rudy Gobert tests positive for COVID-19, March 11, 2020
A common theme when discussing almost anything in 2020 is the snowball effect.
One little thing can change the course of history in so many ways, both in a positive way in some cases and in a negative fashion in others. Unfortunately for Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert, it was his own medical situation that drastically altered the history of leages like the NBA, NHL and MLB, and potentially the country as a whole.
On March 11, news broke that Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, making the Jazz star the first professional athlete in the United States to be infected with the coronavirus.
From there, it seemed like news simply could not stop breaking. NBA games were getting cancelled while others were still being played, and the league postponed its regular season almost in an instant.
Other leagues and institutions followed suit, with the NHL and MLB postponing their respective regular seasons, and the NCAA cancelling March Madness for collegiate athletes competing in any winter sports.
The butterfly effect kicked in on many levels, as news and footage continued to come out related to Gobert’s contact with media members’ equipment, fellow players, and more. Arenas and hotels were shut down to ensure proper sanitization, and eventually, more and more high-profile athletes and celebrities were diagnosed with COVID-19.
The country went into a severe lockdown almost across the board in the blink of an eye, and the nation’s “Big Four” professional sports leagues wouldn’t get back to playing for at least four months.
No, Gobert didn’t infect hundreds of thousands of people himself, nor did his one case serve as the origin of the virus’ spread in the United States. But, professional athletes garner a lot of attention across multiple sports, and Gobert’s positive test seemed to wake the United States up as it related to COVID-19’s true impacts.
When fans look back on 2020, they will unfortunately think about the negatives associated with COVID-19, and all of the moments the virus took away from people from a sports perspective. So, the most significant moment of the year undoubtedly has to be the night when all of the chaos began: March 11, 2020.