If there was one consistent thing about the way sports treated the early days of the pandemic, it was the overarching presumption that the entire situation was temporary. Every decision was made with the hope, and belief, that all sports had to do is make it through one season, and once that was over, they could get back to normal. The NBA constructed a bubble; Major League Baseball shortened its season to 60 games; the NHL left the United States entirely. Those strategies got them through the beginning of COVID-19, but the pandemic just kept going. So those short-term strategies were abandoned once the next season came around: All three leagues will be playing mostly full seasons in 2021, in their own stadiums, traveling across the country, while crossing their fingers that vaccines are deployed at lightning speed.
With any luck, 2021 will be the last sports year in which COVID-19 plays any direct role at all. But even if it is no longer the shadow looming over everything going forward, the pandemic has altered certain aspects of sports forever. And it wasn’t the only force helping to reshape the landscape; more athletes embraced their role as social-justice ambassadors after the killing of George Floyd, and their activism isn’t just a flash in the pan. Here are ten ways sports changed this year.
1. Novel camera angles and clear audio of the players are here to stay. The one legacy left by the old XFL — the early-aughts version, the one that flopped, not last year’s promising but truncated reboot — was the innovative camerawork both on the field (where cameras swooped in on the huddle) and off. We saw the rest of sports finally catch all the way up this year, as networks used every trick they could to capture viewers’ attention and had all sorts of extra opportunities to do so without any of those pesky fans in the stands to get in the way. Here’s a really good example from the Washington-Seattle game this weekend.
We’ve also witnessed college-football drone shots and college-basketball camerapeople standing where fans would usually be. Best of all, we’ve been able to hear the sound of the actual athletes, rather than background noise. (Including a whole bunch of fun expletives that normally would have been drowned out by crowds.) It has given the broadcasts a documentary feel that was already becoming more familiar before the pandemic. Games have increasingly felt like made-for-television events in recent years, and even more so without the fans there. Attending sporting events in person after COVID will feel more and more like attending a television-studio taping where you’re among the unpaid extras.
2. Seasons may keep getting shorter. Athletes, particularly those in the NBA, have long argued that the regular season is too long and grueling. Every major sport other than the NFL, which only has one game a week anyway, shortened its season this year, and the result was, in many cases, crisper, sharper players. (The quality of play in the NBA bubble was often breathtaking.) What may have started out as a pandemic necessity — fewer games means fewer medical risks and, perhaps more important to owners, fewer games where players had to be paid their full salary — is already becoming the new normal. Considering how much money leagues derive from the playoffs, which bring in national television dollars, there may not be a huge constituency for going back to the way things were. The upcoming NBA and NHL seasons are already shorter, and it’s widely assumed that MLB’s season will shave a few games off its usual 162 as well. (Though that’ll end up being yet another massive management-union fight.) Don’t be surprised if every league’s schedule is a little less lengthy going forward.
3. Plenty more rules experimentation. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred initially came into the job talking a big game about possible rule changes to shorten games in the hopes of attracting younger fans. But he didn’t really start instituting the big ones — specifically, putting a runner at second base to start extra-inning games and shortening doubleheaders to two seven-inning games — until the pandemic arrived. Baseball has long been plagued by purists who insist the game should be exactly the way it was when they were 14 years old, but the big surprise this year was that fans loved these changes. (It turns out that knowing a baseball game will end before 4 a.m. tends to entice people to keep watching.) Expect leagues to be emboldened by the embrace of such creativity. If there’s anything they ever wanted to tweak, now’s the time to do it.
4. Somehow, even less power for collegiate athletes. At one point this summer, it looked like this could be a revolutionary moment for college athletes. When the Pac-12 was preparing to begin its season, a group of star players made a list of demands, some reasonable, some unrealistic, all of which represented an important first step toward thousands of unpaid laborers in a billion-dollar industry finally having some skin in the game. Then the Pac-12 quickly canceled its slate of games, and by the time it changed its mind and scraped together a pseudo-season, no one even remembered the list of demands, let alone adhered to them. And as COVID-19 has run rampant across college campuses this year, with some teams pushing players onto the field even after they’ve been clearly exposed, you could make an argument college athletes now have less power than they did before the pandemic. If they’re not willing to sit out a pandemic season to force greater change in college athletics — a big ask, but probably what it will take — they’re not going to do it anytime in the future either. The pandemic exposed so much of the rot at the core of college athletics. But it didn’t make the players’ lives any easier in the process.
5. This is only the beginning of athlete activism. As I wrote last month, 2020 was the most political year in sports since the civil-rights era in the 1960s and arguably the most political ever. We’ve never seen athletes simply refuse to play as an act of political protest before. And don’t expect things to slow down just because the election is over. Groups like LeBron James’s More Than a Vote organization are remaining active in the Georgia runoffs and will then pivot to fighting voter suppression more generally. The looming labor issues in MLB are about to give millions of young baseball fans all sorts of lessons on workers seizing the means of production. The absence of Donald Trump from the national stage probably means league champions will start returning to the White House again, but that doesn’t mean they won’t fight against the system. Athletes have now seen the power they can wield through collective action. They will only be incentivized to use it more.
6. The backlash to athlete activism, though, is only going to get stronger. When Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “Shut Up and Dribble,” it not only didn’t shut him up; it helped launch the new era of political activity in sports. It is true, though, that a not-insignificant percentage of sports fans don’t actually want to think about politics when they’re watching their favorite team. And I get it: Down here in Georgia, I can’t make it through a college football game without watching Kelly Loeffler calling Raphael Warnock a socialist during every timeout. And those are just the commercials; having politics bleed into the actual games is a step further. People do want escape, particularly now, and the more the real world insists on intruding on its games, the more sports will become yet another area of community division. It’s long overdue that athletes are speaking out on the issues that animate them, and doing so is a societal positive. But to pretend as if there will not be any sort of backlash to that, one that will probably hurt the bottom line more than anyone wants to admit, is magical thinking. I’d argue it’s well worth it. But I doubt commissioners, owners, and television executives feel the same way.
7. A lingering economic recession. There is every reason to believe that owners who claim they’re losing big money during the pandemic are being disingenuous. (Even if they’re taking in less than they usually do, which they surely are, owners consistently make massive returns on investments when they sell their teams.) Nonetheless, owners discovered that crying poor amid empty stands has gained some traction among the public. Already the baseball off-season Hot Stove has been frigid, with nearly no deals, and the NBA is projecting massive losses with no fans in attendance. This is a very, very bad off-season to be a free agent. And that fact leads, inevitably, to …
8. More labor discord. The labor battle in Major League Baseball after the 2021 season is going to be monstrous and overwhelming: There are some who believe it will make the 1994 fight (which ended up canceling the World Series) look like thumb wrestling. You can already see the lines in the sand being drawn by the foot-dragging leading to the upcoming season; somehow, teams and players still don’t know basic rules (how many playoff teams, whether the National League will have a DH or not, and so on) for 2021, and neither trusts the other to negotiate in good faith. But it’s not just baseball. The stresses of the NBA bubble hinted at some fraying in the Adam Silver coalition, and while the NFL extended its CBA through 2030 back in March, the player vote was highly contentious, hinting at potential trouble ahead. When there’s less money going around, it tends to be fought over more vigorously.
9. Less centralized power structures, more regionalized self-interest. The NCAA essentially abdicated any authority this year, giving license to leagues like the SEC and others to run wild. This resulted in all sorts of malfeasance and shady practices that’ll take years to unravel. The chaos even led to manipulation of what was happening on the field. Most notably, in college football, the Big Ten conference changed its stated rules of competition so that star pony Ohio State would get to play in the College Football Playoff, and the ACC actually took games off its schedule to maximize the chances of Clemson and Notre Dame making the playoffs. Both of these gambits worked, by the way, only encouraging more such maneuvers in the future. It’s one thing for money to drive everything off the field. It is quite another for organizations to manipulate seasons based on what is most lucrative for them. That precedent was set this year, and with no central authority in charge, there is no one to stop them. Which leads inevitably to …
10. A growing sense that the sports-industrial complex may not be worth all this trouble. We have all suffered during this pandemic, and I will confess I found watching sports a way to get away from my own troubles these past few months. Many have. But it is also safe to say that the way sports leagues and the adults who were supposedly in charge of them have hardly covered themselves in glory this year. The whole thing often felt sorta gross. Sports themselves are simply sports: men and women running, jumping, swimming, throwing a ball, scoring points, engaging in competition. They are not collective-bargaining agreements, or regional television contracts, or Capital One’s Peak Performance of the Week. More than ever during the pandemic, the contrast between the beauty of sports and the relentless capitalist churn of them was often too much to overcome. It made you want to just go watch people hoop in the park or your kids’ Little League game or take some batting practice off the machine yourself. Sports are supposed to make you, you know, feel good. They’re supposed to take you away from your troubles. But this year, in many ways, sports were trouble. That was not because of the sports themselves; it was because of the people in charge of them. Right now, they can get away with it. But in the long term, treating the games and the fans as casually and shabbily as they are being treated right now … long term, there be dragons.