Fall Sports Roundup

With all the new issues we are tackling (pun intended) in 2020, national sports leagues are navigating unfamiliar territory and adapting to new circumstances. Here’s a look at where things stand in mid-October.

  1. 1. NHL: season ended September 28

    On September 28, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the best-of-seven series against the Dallas Stars. This was a very unique event, as it was played at the neutral site of Edmonton’s Rogers Place, one of the two hub cities created by the NHL due to the pandemic. There were no fans in attendance to cheer for their team in the latest ever postseason game. Another odd fact that fans noticed is that both teams were from the Southern United States, as opposed to more “traditional” hockey team locations like Minnesota, New England, and, of course, Canada.

    Since the end of the 2019-2020 season, news in hockey has revolved around the draft and free-agent signings, which were postponed to October. The first three draft picks were Alexis Lafreniere by the New York Rangers, Quinton Byfield by the Los Angeles Kings, and Tim Stuetzle by the Ottawa Senators. Canadian Quinton Byfield made history as the highest-drafted Black hockey player in NHL history. His talent and success has been praised by players from across the league and beyond, including the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which is a brand new association of BIPOC NHL Hockey players who eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.

    Finally, the 2020 free agency signings have been underway since October 9th. This is still ongoing but you can find a complete list of free agency signings here on the NBC Sports website. Next season was originally scheduled to begin in October 2020, but now may be delayed until January or later. This presents issues for teams and players getting a normal off-season.

  2. 2. NWHL: next season postponed until January 2021

    The fifth season of the NWHL was unfortunately impacted by COVID-19 as well. The five teams in the league had been playing and working hard, playing their semifinal game on March 8. The final game between Boston and Minnesota was eventually canceled in the wake of the pandemic, but since Boston was higher ranked, they have been acknowledged as the season champion, despite the Isobel Cup not being awarded. Their next season was also meant to start in October but has been postponed until January 2021. There has been a lot of movement in the women’s league, when in April an expansion was announced to include a new team based in Toronto, called the Toronto Six. The continued strike by players in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, asking for health insurance and a livable salary, has seen a continued boycott of the NWHL. The League itself has seen a rearrangement of leadership to prioritize independent ownership of teams led by a Board of Governors representing all six teams.

    The NWHL draft was able to take place back in April 2020, albeit virtually, due to their decision to end the postseason early. At the time of the draft, the Toronto Six had not yet been named, but it was important to include the new team in the draft and free-agent signing process. The first three draft picks were Sammy Davis by the Boston Pride, Kayla Friesen by the Connecticut Whale, and Carly Jackson by the Buffalo Beauts. The new Toronto Six were able to draft top players Jaycee Gebhard, Amy Curlew, and Erin Locke, a USports skater who, along with Autumn MacDougall, made history as the first two USports women’s hockey skaters drafted in the national league. This is an unusual fall for the NWHL but we look forward to continued success on the ice in 2021.

  3. 3. WNBA: season ended October 11

    In April of this year, the WNBA honored Alyssa Altobelli, Payton Chester, and Gianna Bryant, daughter of Kobe Bryant, who all died in a helicopter crash in January, with honorary draft picks. Now, the 2020 season was meant to be from May through September, but it was disrupted by COVID-19. The return-to-play decision was made in June and allowed for the season, including the finals, to be played from June through October 6th instead. The 2020 finals were played in Florida at the IMG Academy, without fans in attendance, but otherwise, it had the same format and seeding as in the past. In the end, the Las Vegas Aces and the Seattle Storm went head-to-head in a best-of-five series which ended with Seattle being named the winner on October 11th. Basketball fans, take note: Sue Bird just won her 4th title in her 17th career season, exactly the same record as LeBron James. Incredible talent on both courts! This shortened season was still wonderfully successful in terms of viewership and athleticism, and the draft being early in the year helped the teams move forward. The 2021 season is already under scrutiny, with mock drafts available online and speculation about repeat star performances from Seattle and Las Vegas keeping fans in the loop this fall.

  4. 4. NBA: season ended October 11, draft postponed to November 18

    The longest season in NBA history concluded on October 11th when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat in a best-of-seven series. The regular season, which began October 22nd, 2019, was unfortunately canceled back in March, though the teams and the league agreed to restart in June in Florida. As with the NHL, this was the neutral “bubble” site the league created for safety reasons, there were no fans in attendance at any games, and this was the latest postseason on record.

    The off-season has been pushed back to accommodate this late postseason, moving the draft to November 18th, with free agency talks allowed to begin two days later on the 20th. Who will be the top draft picks? Websites like ESPN and CBS Sports have their predictions, naming young men from Ohio State to Alabama, so you’ll have to tune in for updates. The 2020-2021 season, which should have started this month, is now postponed until at least January, with the All-Star game originally scheduled for early February also under scrutiny.

  5. 5. MLB: postseason is currently ongoing

    COVID-19 disrupted the entire season, unfortunately, with the regular season scheduled to start on March 26th. On March 12th, spring training was canceled and the season postponed until further notice. Spring training resumed on July 1st and while the All-Star game was canceled (moved to 2021), teams were scheduled for 60 regular-season games (compared to the usual 162 games).

    The First-Year Player Draft took place during its regular time, June, but it was held virtually instead of coinciding with the 2020 College World Series. Additionally, this year was shortened to five rounds, and the 2021 draft will have only 20 rounds in a deal between the league and the Player’s Association. Finally, both the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox forfeited a couple of picks as punishment for sign-stealing violations in the 2019 season. The top three picks were Spencer Torkelson by the Detroit Tigers, Heston Kjerstad by the Baltimore Orioles, and Max Meyer by the Miami Marlins.

    The postseason began September 15th, featuring a shortened best-of-three Wild Card series, in addition to the best-of-five Division Series and League Championship Series. In the latter two series, fans were not in attendance but could view the games online, played at neutral sites as we saw with the NHL and NBA tournaments. This year’s World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be played at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field in Arlington Texas starting October 20th and game seven, if needed, will be October 28th. Fans will also note this is the first World Series to be played at only one ballpark since 1944, and many will note that the same two cities already brought home championships in other leagues: Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup and Los Angeles won the NBA Finals this year already. Stay tuned to find out which city will take home their second championship!

  6. 6. NFL: regular season is currently ongoing

    The NFL season began as scheduled on September 10th, although the preseason was greatly altered due to COVID-19. Some specific alterations are: the 2020 Draft was held virtually but on time in April, the Pro Bowl game scheduled for January 2021 was postponed to next year (although the 2020 rosters will be honored), and all of the league’s preseason games normally held in August were canceled. Furthermore, during the regular season, we have already seen multiple schedule changes due to teams confirming positive cases among the players and/or staff, and reduced numbers of fans in attendance (which varies by team, based on regional regulations).

    As for the draft, this year’s top three picks were Joe Burrow by the Cincinnati Bengals, Chase Young by the Washington Football Team, who finally this year have agreed to change their name, and Jeff Okudah by the Detroit Lions. It’s been great to watch all the new, young talent so far this season! The NFL has not reduced the number of sites for games as in other leagues, so fans will watch games taking place either at home or away all over the country, with teams and staff traveling as safely as possible as their schedule dictates. Time will tell if further alterations need to be made with regard to this year’s postseason, recently expanded to include 14 teams, currently still scheduled for January-February 2021.

  7. 7. MLS: regular season is currently ongoing

    The season had only just begun for soccer teams across the US and Canada when COVID-19 forced a suspension. After only two weeks, the league suspended all activities until May 6th when individual outdoor training was allowed to resume. To celebrate, a one-off tournament called MLS Is Back was played among two dozen teams in Orlando in July and August, the results of which will be counted in the regular season’s standings. The Portland Timbers beat the Orlando City FC for the title and also qualified for the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, replacing the spot typically held by the MLS regular-season champion for this year only, due to the disruption of the regular season. This also means that the MLS Cup has been rescheduled from November 7th to December 12th.

    Since returning to regular-season play, a few clubs have had to postpone previously rescheduled games due to outbreaks of positive cases on teams, as seen with the NFL. Many games were altered to reduce the distance traveled by clubs to play, but they are still traveling as opposed to playing in neutral sites or “hubs” as seen in other leagues. A noted difference from the other leagues we’ve looked at is that the MLS’s draft, called SuperDraft, was hosted virtually back in January, just before the pandemic took hold in the US. It accommodated the two new expansion teams, Inter Miami and Nashville FC.

  8. 8. NWSL: Fall Series ended October 17, expansion draft scheduled for November 12

    The regular April to October season was delayed due to COVID-19, but the league has finally updated fans with a new schedule for 2020. This year, teams competed in the 2020 Challenge Cup tournament in June and July, canceling the regular season and playoffs. This one-off event was played by all but one of the teams over 23 games played without fans in attendance. Athletes in the NWSL, just as in other leagues discussed in this article, were allowed to opt-out if they chose and several athletes made this decision, most notably in this league was Megan Rapinoe. The participating clubs were housed in an isolated “village” near Salt Lake City, Utah, similar to how the NHL and NBA protected teams from the pandemic. In the championship game on July 26th, the Houston Dash defeated the Chicago Red Stars.

    Following the success of the Challenge Cup, the league and Player’s Association announced a Fall Series during September and October to bring more soccer to our screens. The teams were split into three regional pods and they played four games in each region. The Portland Thorns FC was the overall champion, and so they won the Community Shield and $25,000 for their chosen community partner. The following two runners-up won $15,000 and $10,000 each for their own.

    Finally, due to the addition of a brand new club, Racing Louisville FC, there is an expansion draft scheduled for November 12th, 2020. This is a difficult transition for everyone involved, with the trade/waiver window closing this week on October 22nd and the protected lists announced on November 5th. In any league, this is the time you might have to say goodbye to one of your favorite players as they transition to a new team. However, expansion to bring on a new club is a really exciting event. We will all have to keep an eye out for news regarding the forthcoming fifteenth season of professional women’s soccer.

As we move on to the later part of the year, there will certainly be more news to follow on your favorite teams and how the different leagues are handling the COVID-19 pandemic.