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Everything About Sports In 2020 Was Weird … Except Who Won

This year disrupted the sports world like no other in modern history. First, the COVID-19 pandemic shut sports down almost completely in the spring and early summer; then, it dramatically altered the schedules and formats of most leagues when they did return. The NBA and WNBA played their postseasons in neutral-site bubbles, for instance, while Major League Baseball teams played only a third as many games as usual. Much of the year was spent playing in empty arenas before cardboard or virtual fans as fake crowd noise was piped in. The COVID report was more important than the injury report. This was hardly sports as we knew them before.

Because of the massive upheaval, it was fair to assume the sports themselves might also be chaotic. At times, it wasn’t clear that leagues would be able to crown a champion at all — and for those that managed to pull it off, there were serious concerns about legitimacy. With small sample sizes, no clear home advantage and the constant specter of the pandemic hanging over every game, how could the best teams be given a fair test? Would we need to discount 2020’s winners as mere flukes?

As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. Not only did the favorites survive, they actually thrived; if anything, this was probably the most dominant season for top teams in recent memory. Somehow, after the dust settles on the chaos of 2020, we should remember it as the year of no asterisks — at least as far as its champions were concerned.

To judge this season against history, I pulled preseason betting-odds data from the indispensable Sports Odds History for the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and college football going back to 2000, and used the Internet Archive to gather the same data for the WNBA from VegasInsider when possible.1 According to the odds, here’s how (not) unexpected this year’s champions have been:

  • In the NHL, the preseason favorite Tampa Bay Lightning (+675) won the Stanley Cup.
  • In the WNBA, the co-favorite Seattle Storm (+450) won the championship.
  • In the NBA, the champion Los Angeles Lakers (+450) ranked No. 2 in preseason, only slightly behind the favored L.A. Clippers (+425).
  • In MLB, the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers (+385) were also No. 2 before the season, narrowly trailing the New York Yankees (+375).
  • In the NFL, the preseason favorite Kansas City Chiefs (+450) have the best record in the league and are currently by far the most likely Super Bowl winner.
  • And in college football, the top three teams in preseason — Clemson (+275), Ohio State (+275) and Alabama (+500) — have a combined 94.4 percent chance of winning the national championship, according to ESPN’s simulations.

That is an incredible season for top teams. If we look at the percentile rank for each league’s eventual champion in the betting market,2 the average 2020 champion was in the 93.5th percentile of preseason odds.3 According to the betting data, that is easily the most well-regarded group of champions (on average) in any season since at least 2000.

The next-closest season in that regard came all the way back in 2000, when the Yankees (No. 1 in MLB), Lakers (No. 2 in the NBA) and Devils (No. 3 in the NHL) all prevailed in their respective leagues. But even then, the Super Bowl-winning Ravens ranked just 11th in preseason NFL odds, lower than most of the teams likely to win in 2020.

Some of what we saw this year seems to be part of a trend of increasing chalkiness for favorites since the mid-2000s, accelerating even more in recent years. And it’s not exactly a coincidence that the weirdness of the pandemic led the College Football Playoff committee to default back to its familiar friends when picking this year’s field.

But the other champions on the list had to fully prove their worth on the battlefields of competition. Although their regular seasons were cut short, the Storm, Lakers and Lightning prevailed in normal, full-length playoff brackets. None had the benefit of home advantage in the bubbles of the postseason, which is usually an especially massive advantage for basketball favorites. And the Dodgers simultaneously faced the shortest regular season since 1877 and the longest World Series path of any champion in baseball history, winning a record four series en route to the title.4

Despite all the factors that would seem to work against favorites — and in favor of extreme parity — 2020’s champions were the teams we might have expected all along, pandemic or not. We don’t know what that means, necessarily, or even if it’s a good thing. (Certainly one could make the case that this should have been the year for some fresh playoff faces in college football, at the very least.) But the one thing you can’t say about these seasons played out against the backdrop of a pandemic is that they required any asterisks. There were no flukes to be had, and no one should bother questioning their legitimacy. It was business as usual — even if nothing else in sports looked remotely normal in a year we’re sure never to forget.

Footnotes

  1. This ended up encompassing the 2007, 2009 and 2015 through 2020 seasons.

  2. Slicing down the field of college football hopefuls to no more than the top 35 teams (and ties), to keep the number of teams on roughly the same footing as the pro leagues.

  3. This includes the as-yet-unfinished NFL and college football seasons by weighting each team’s percentile rank by its chance of winning the championship (according to the FiveThirtyEight or ESPN forecast model).

  4. Other teams — such as the 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals — won four rounds, but that included one-game wild-card matches, not series.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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