When we looked back last December at the state of the sports world in 2020, we could only marvel at a bizarre juxtaposition: While the COVID-19 pandemic created the strangest year of sports in anybody’s memory, the winners of the major sports were about as predictable as could be. Across the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, WNBA and college football, the lowest-ranked champions of 2020 — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — were tied for third in the preseason futures odds. (And that team was led by the greatest QB in NFL history — its success didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.) The rest were all either at the top of the predictions or co-favorites at worst, belying the overall chaos that was unleashed on sports as a whole.
Compared with 2020, this sports year felt a lot more conventional. Bubbles were eschewed, fans returned to the stands, schedules were more familiar lengths, and games were seldom postponed due to the virus — at least not until the avalanche of cases caused by the omicron variant in mid-to-late December. If the leagues halting in March 2020 was a moment of truth that underscored the challenge facing the country at large, their relative normalcy for most of 2021 offered hope that, with the help of vaccination efforts, we would all get back to our pre-pandemic lives soon enough. (Even if the confusion by year’s end gave us all flashbacks to the very beginning of the pandemic.)
And yet, even as things inched back toward normal, the results on the fields, courts and ice were not as predictable in 2021 as they had been under last year’s atypical conditions. Cincinnati broke the Power Five’s stranglehold on the College Football Playoff; the Super Bowl landscape was seemingly upended on a weekly basis; a .500 team (the Chicago Sky) captured the WNBA title; the World Series was won by a team (the Atlanta Braves) that set a new record for days with a losing record during the season by a champion. Yes, the NBA (Milwaukee Bucks) and especially NHL (Tampa Bay Lightning) champs were more conventional, but overall it was a year of far less chalk for top teams across the major sports.
We can measure just how much less chalk there was by using the same methodology we introduced in our story last year. For each sport examined (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA and college football),1 I took the preseason championship odds from either SportsOddsHistory.com or VegasInsider.com and calculated each team’s percentile rank relative to its league. (For college football, I limited the pool to the 48 teams that had at least a 1-in-150 chance to win the playoff.)2 I then took the average percentile rank across all champions to see how unexpected the results were in a given sports year. In retrospect, 2020 was the chalkiest year on record since at least 2000, with an average percentile rank of 94.6 for its champions.3 By contrast, 2021 — with an average percentile of just 80.4 for its champs — was the ninth-most chaotic year in our sample (since 2000).
Granted, not all of the years there include WNBA odds, since finding a historical archive of those is (not-so-surprisingly) difficult. That makes comparisons across years not quite apples-to-apples, because the WNBA champion tends to end up with a lower percentile rank than other sports on average. But we do have a complete average across all six leagues for the past seven years — and in that span, every other sports year was at least slightly chalkier by this measure than 2021 was:
The difference against pre-2020 norms wasn’t huge, mind you. In each year from 2015 through 2019, the average percentile rank for champions floated between 82.0 and 87.0 (compared with 80.4 for 2021). Perhaps the more striking takeaway is just how much of an outlier 2020 appears to have been. As I wrote a year ago, favored teams were coming off an incredible run of success, with every champion hailing from the top echelons of its sport. As sports tried to do a better job of replicating business as usual in 2021, that business as usual included somewhat less-heralded teams making title runs.
In sports, we tend to think of randomness as a bug, encouraged by small samples and/or strange conditions. But 2020 (and 2021) proved it might actually be a feature. With practically all sports limiting their schedules and modifying their competition structures, it all ended up benefiting — or at least not hurting — favorites. And as sports returned to a semblance of normalcy, things were more back to normal … which is to say, less predictable. Whether this trend holds up in 2022 is anybody’s guess; we don’t know what effect the omicron variant (or future greek letters we haven’t even pondered yet) will have on sports in the year to come. But 2020 and 2021 offered up some rare natural experiments in how sports disruptions affect who wins — and the results were pretty counterintuitive both years.