When we looked back at the state of the sports world in 2020 last December, we could only marvel at a bizarre juxtaposition: While the COVID-19 pandemic created the strangest year of sports in anyone’s memory, the winners of the big sports were about the same. predictable as could be. In NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, WNBA and college football, the lowest ranked 2020 champions—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—ranked third in preseason futures odds. (And that team was led by the greatest QB in NFL history — success didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.) The rest were all at the top of the predictions, or at worst, co-favorites, belieping the overall chaos that had been unleashed. on sport as a whole.
Compared to 2020, this sporting year felt a lot more conventional. Bubbles were avoided, fans returned to the stands, schedules were more familiar lengths and games were rarely postponed because of the virus — at least not until the avalanche of cases caused by the omicron variant in mid- to late December. If the shutdown of the competitions in March 2020 was a moment of truth that underlined the challenge facing the country at large, their relative normality for most of 2021 offered hope that, with the help of vaccination efforts, we can all would return to our pre-pandemic lives soon enough. (Even if the confusion at the end of the year gave us all flashbacks to the very beginning of the pandemic.)
And yet, even as things went back to normal, the results on the fields, tracks and ice in 2021 were not as predictable as they were under the atypical conditions of last year. Cincinnati broke the Power Five’s stranglehold at the College Football Playoff; the Super Bowl landscape seemed to be turned upside down every week; 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 an all-season losing record by a champion. Yes, the NBA (Milwaukee Bucks) and especially NHL (Tampa Bay Lightning) champions were more conventional, but overall it was a year of much less chalk for top teams in the big sports.
We can measure how much less chalk there was by using the same method we introduced in our story last year. For each sport surveyed (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA, and college football),1 I took the preseason championship odds from SportsOddsHistory.com or VegasInsider.com and calculated each team’s percentile rank relative to the league. (For college football, I narrowed the pool to the 48 teams that had at least a 1 in 150 chance of winning the playoff.)2 Then I took the average percentile rank of all champions to see how unexpected the results were in a given sporting year. In retrospect, 2020 was the most calcareous year since at least 2000, with an average percentile rank of 94.6 for the champions.3 By contrast, 2021 — with an average percentile of just 80.4 for its champions — was the ninth most chaotic year in our sample (since 2000).
Admittedly, not all years out there contain WNBA odds, as finding a historical record of them is (not surprisingly) difficult. That doesn’t really make year-to-year comparisons apples-to-apples, as the WNBA champion tends to have a lower percentile rank on average than other sports. But we’ve got a full average across all six leagues for the past seven years — and every other sporting year over that period has been at least slightly more chalky than 2021 by this measure:
The difference with the standards before 2020 was not great, mind you. In each year from 2015 to 2019, the average percentile rank for champions hovered between 82.0 and 87.0 (compared to 80.4 for 2021). Perhaps the most notable takeaway is how much of an outlier 2020 seems to have been. As I wrote a year ago, favorite teams had an incredible run of success, with each champion coming from the top of their sport. While sports tried better to replicate business as usual in 2021, that business as usual included slightly less heralded teams making title runs.
In sports, we tend to see randomness as a bug, encouraged by small sample sizes and/or strange circumstances. But 2020 (and 2021) have proven that it might be a feature. With practically all sports limiting their schedules and adjusting their competitive structures, it all ended up benefiting — or at least not hurting — favorites. And when sports became a semblance of normality again, things became more normal…that is, less predictable. Whether this trend will hold in 2022 is anyone’s guess; we don’t know what effect the omicron variant (or future Greek letters we haven’t even thought about) will have on sports in the coming year. But 2020 and 2021 offered some rare natural experiments on how sports disruptions affect who wins — and the results were pretty counterintuitive both years.