2020 was quite possibly the most unique (and memorable) sports year in history. This year's top teams had to overcome dire circumstances that have never faced before. The year saw abbreviated and interrupted runs (and sometimes marathon) pursuits for a championship. Yet in the process, history of all kinds was made in a year that was far from short on sentiment.
The reigning champions of the top football league in Germany, FC Bayern Munich entered the season as the defending champions of the Bundesliga. They were undefeated between December 14, 2019, until August 3, 2020, with only one tie during the span. However, their most notable contest came on June 10th, when their match against Eintracht Frankfurt marked the first professional sports event since the pandemic broke worldwide in early March.
Led by a pair of Heisman Trophy frontrunners in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, the Tigers rolled into 2020 as the top college football team in the nation. Dabo Swinney’s team has reached the National Championship in four of the past five seasons and reached the Playoffs for the five consecutive seasons. After a 10-1 regular season, the Tigers are 39-2 over the past three seasons and currently have over 35 players on NFL rosters.
After a 3-0 victory in the MLS Cup over the defending champion Seattle Sounders FC, the Crew won their second MLS championship in their 25 years of existence. On the year, the club finished in just third place with a 12-6-5 record in the Eastern Conference, but showed well in the MLS Is Back Tournament and allowed just two goals against during their championship run throughout the playoffs. The title marked the club’s first since 2008.
Perhaps more than any other year, gaming became a very regular part of the everyday life of many, as social distancing ended many competitions around the world. While the world of competitive gaming wasn’t exempt from those impacts, it was able to find a pathway forward quickly. In the vastly popular Legend of Legends community, South Korea-based DAMWON Gaming claimed the World Title, going 5-1 in the group stage in September. The team became the first Korean champions since 2017.
The 2020 NBA Playoffs were unlike any in history and saw several young teams take major steps forward. One of the main teams that moved ahead was the Nuggets, who became the first team in NBA Playoff history to twice come back from a 3-1 deficit. Although they ultimately fell in five games in the Western Conference Finals, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray emerged as one of the most formidable duos in the game.
Entering the season, few teams in pro sports history had more heat on them than the Astros. The defending American League champions had been rocked by a sign-stealing controversy that led to the jettison of both manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow. Throughout the season, they were regularly the target of fan and opponent angst alike. Although they struggled through injury and uneven performance, new manager Dusty Baker was able to lead the club back to the playoffs for a fourth straight season, before they fell in game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
Technically, the Tigers didn’t actually play in 2020, as the SWAC canceled its schedule due to the impact of COVID-19. However, arguably no team in history did more while not taking the field than JSU. The hiring of Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as head coach brought a huge buzz to both the program and HBCU sports in general. Subsequently, they pulled in a Power Five-level recruiting class and have set the stage to change the perception of black college sports for the long-term.
Armed with the inevitable presence of Patrick Mahomes, one of sports’ most rabid fanbases finally reached the long-elusive NFL mountain top. Sparked by a comeback from a 24-0 deficit in the AFC Divisional Round, the Chiefs made their first Super Bowl appearance since 1969. A furious second-half comeback, led by a 21-point fourth-quarter saw the Chiefs capture their first title of the Super Bowl era and Mahomes become the youngest quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP.
While there was no NCAA Tournament played and no National Champion named, the Jayhawks did finish the season ranked number one in both the AP and Coaches polls. Bill Self’s team went 17-1 in the Big 12 and 28-3 overall, with all of their losses coming against ranked teams. Devin Dotson led the team with 18.1 points per game, while Udoka Azubuike averaged a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double.
Armed with a facelift led by the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers entered the season with aspirations of wrestling Los Angeles away from the Lakers. Armed with one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, the Clippers finished second in the Western Conference but struggled throughout the playoffs. They failed to close out a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, extending their streak of failing to reach the Western Conference finals to 50 years. After the failure to reach expectations and late collapse, long-time coach Doc Rivers was fired following the season.
The Lakers entered 2020 out to prove a point but ended it with a new purpose. The Lake Show retooled for year two of the LeBron James era, adding Anthony Davis and a host of right-fit veterans to their roster. However, midway through the year, the season took on a new purpose following the tragic death of Laker legend Kobe Bryant. With the Mamba’s #24 adorning the chest of new black, snakeskin uniforms in his honor, the Lakers walked out of the NBA bubble with a record-tying 17 th Championship to their credit. A multi-faceted mission accomplished.
The unstoppable Tigers of Baton Rouge kicked off the year by claiming their first National Championship since 2007, via one of the most impressive offenses ever. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, the Tigers averaged 568 yards and 48.4 points per game. In the end, they captured the championship 45-24 over #2 Clemson and eventually tied a record with 14 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, led by #1 overall pick Burrow.
With the world’s top driver Lewis Hamilton leading the way, the “Silver Arrows” captured 13 of the 17 wins on the Formula One season. Hamilton was the victor in 11 of those starts, with teammate Valtteri Bottas claiming two others. Their 2020 championship marked the sixth consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ title for Mercedes-Benz, with Hamilton and Bottas finishing in the top two spots for the Drivers’ Championship on the year.
Few teams have shown as much grit and determination as the Heat did during a stunning run to the NBA Finals. Led by gritty Jimmy Butler and breakout performances from a young core led by Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson, the Heat went 8-1 over the first two rounds of the playoffs, stunningly ousting the top-seed Milwaukee Bucks in round 2. Although they ran out of gas in the NBA Finals, Butler put on one of the gutsiest performances of all-time. In Game 5, he became the first player ever with 35 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and five steals in a Finals game.
Few –if any— teams have overcome greater odds to reach the postseason than the 2020 Marlins. Due to a COVID-19 outbreak shortly after Opening Day, their season almost ended before it got off the ground, as 18 team members tested positive for the virus. However, they endured and captured a Wild Card spot, returning to the postseason for the first time in 17 years. In the process, Miami became the first team in history to make the postseason a year after losing 100 games.
On the court, the Bucks remained the dominant regular-season team in the Eastern Conference, posted the league’s best record at 56-17. However, their most enduring statement came via the game they didn't play. Following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Bucks refused to leave their locker room ahead of Game 5 of their series versus the Orlando Magic. The move put into place one of the greatest player-led boycotts in sports history. Players and teams around the sporting world followed suit in solidarity with the Bucks’ decision and the continuation of the NBA season in full fell in-doubt briefly, as a fed-up league nearly walked out.
For the first time since 1990, Liverpool captured their first Premier League championship ever and did so in dominant fashion. No team has ever won the league in a faster fashion, as Liverpool did so with seven games remaining on their slate. Their unbeaten streak at home ran out to three years in the process. They also matched Premier League records for overall wins (32), consecutive wins (18), and greatest points lead (25). Overall, their 99-point season was the second-largest in Premiere League history.
The pandemic-shortened 2020 season potentially robbed us of seeing one of the great baseball teams of all-time make its full impact. The Dodgers delivered on their substantial promise, posting the highest win percentage (.717) of any team of the post-1960 expansion era. Their 43-17 sprint through the season landed their eighth-straight NL West title. In the end, veterans such as Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, and Kenley Jansen were able to finally breathe a sigh of relief, as, after nearly a decade of disappointments, the Dodgers captured their first title in 32 years.
Real Madrid made up for a disappointing first, post-Ronaldo campaign in 2019, but rising to the top of La Liga again in 2020. They went 26-9-3 on the pandemic-interrupted season, posting 87 points and advancing to represent the league in the Champions League. The victory represented a record 34th La Liga title and first since 2017. Although they ultimately fell in the round of 16 in Champions League play, the rebound season put Real Madrid back in its customary place as one of the powerhouse clubs in Europe.
It is no mystery that baseball suffers from a lack of a chronic lack of excitement at times. But don’t tell the San Diego Padres that, as they used the year to emerge as one of the most exciting –and promising— teams in the sport. Led by the thrilling infield pairing of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr, the Padres returned to the postseason for the first time since 2006 and won their first postseason series since 1998. In the process, they also became the first team in history to hit a grand slam in four consecutive games in August. A bright future for the Friars began in 2020.
The Storm tied for the best record in the WNBA at 18-4. An 86-84 loss to the Las Vegas Aces made them the second seed in the playoffs, but they became a force in the playoffs, going 6-0. The Storm capped their run in the ‘Wubble’ by sweeping swept their chief regular season rival Aces and capturing their fourth WNBA Championship. Breanna Stewart averaged 25 points and seven rebounds during the playoff run, while Sue Bird contributed a dominant nine assists per night.
Buoyed by four five-star recruits joining their ranks, the Gamecocks dominated their slate to the tone of a 32-1 record and undefeated SEC season on the year. They finished the season with 26 consecutive wins, topped by a 76-62 victory over #9 Mississippi State to capture an SEC Championship. Although the NCAA Tournament was canceled, Dawn Staley’s team would have been the top overall seed and in line to make another run at a National Championship.
The Lightning avenged one of the biggest upsets in NHL history in 2019 by emerging victorious in the most unique Stanley Cup playoffs ever. As the NHL rallied its season inside their playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, the Lightning emerged as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The run to the franchise’s second Stanley Cup came in thrilling fashion, as they became the first team ever to win three-straight playoff seasons with the deciding game ending in overtime. They would play two more OT games in the Stanley Cup Finals, before defeating the Dallas Stars four games to two.
Often lost in the shadow of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, baseball’s most perennially underestimated team ruled the roost in the American League. The Rays owned the league’s top record at 40-20 and returned to the playoffs for a second consecutive season. In the postseason, little-known rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena became ALCS MVP while setting MLB postseason records for home runs (10), hits, and total bases in a single-season. The Rays made their second World Series appearance in franchise history and fell in six games, but in the process, affixed themselves as a team to be looked past no more.
The Golden Knights continued on as one of the best young franchises in sports history. In their third year of existence, Vegas reached the Western Conference Finals for the second time, after capturing a second Pacific Division title in three years. They fell in five games in the Conference Finals for the second time, but continue to raise the bar for the competitive potential for an expansion franchise.
Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.