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2021 sports outlook

The Washington Football Team plays against the Philadelphia Eagles in front of empty seats at Fedex Field on Sept. 13. (Al Drago/AP)


2021 sports outlook

From Super Bowl attendance to team nicknames, here are five sports predictions for the New Year

No one could have predicted 2020’s crazy sports season.

Governing bodies at all levels of sports truncated, canceled, or postponed events and even entire seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams competed for championships before mostly empty venues. Separately, athletes protested and teams dropped controversial nicknames in the name of social justice.

Against that backdrop, here are five sports predictions for 2021:

Expect the lowest attendance and television ratings in Super Bowl history. Tampa will host the National Football League’s signature event this February. While Florida is among the few states whose economy is completely open, the NFL isn’t likely to allow a packed house at Raymond James Stadium—not with the surge in COVID-19 cases in late 2020.

The NFL’s decision to let players protest racism and police brutality by kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” has alienated many fans. The website Deadline in December blamed, in part, “backlash from some fans over the league’s social justice efforts” for the NFL’s struggling ratings, down 7 percent through the season’s first 13 weeks. In an October Rasmussen survey, 32 percent of U.S. adults said they were less likely to watch NFL games due to players’ Black Lives Matter protests.

COVID-19 will continue to impact sports beyond the Super Bowl. The NCAA is already considering hosting the 2021 March Madness men’s basketball tournament in a single “bubble” city, as the NBA did with its playoffs. Indianapolis, home of the NCAA’s headquarters, is a leading candidate.

The Summer Olympics, meanwhile, are scheduled to start July 23 in Tokyo after being postponed due to the pandemic. Both the International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials have expressed confidence the games will take place as planned.

Still, if the pandemic does not subside in early 2021, expect the committee to move the Summer Games to 2022—after the Winter Games take place in Beijing.

Hiro Komae/AP

The Olympic Games and Paralympic Games planned to start in summer 2021 in Tokyo. (Hiro Komae/AP)

With President-elect Joe Biden in office, championship teams will start visiting the White House again. In recent years, multiple teams have skipped the traditional photo op due to their stars’ vehement dislike of President Donald Trump: The Golden State Warriors unanimously declined to meet Trump after winning the 2017 NBA title. The U.S. women’s soccer team did likewise after clinching the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Some Christian and conservative athletes may refuse to meet with Biden, as happened with former President Barack Obama. But such snubs will be rarer with Biden than with Trump.

Transgender athletes will likely score big victories before Congress and courtrooms as well as on the field. Biden has vowed to pass the Equality Act, an LGBT-friendly bill that would undermine federal protections for female athletes at high schools and colleges, during his first 100 days in office. With Democrats retaining a majority in the House of Representatives and possibly matching Republicans’ numbers in the Senate (pending the outcome of Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff election), that could be doable, especially with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting a tie-breaking vote.

Even if the Equality Act doesn’t pass immediately, Biden will likely reinstate the Obama administration’s educational protections for transgender students, which Trump withdrew.

Federal judges in Idaho and Connecticut, meanwhile, have signaled they are likely to uphold biologically male athletes’ ability to compete as “women” in women’s sports. Such rulings would fly in the face of scientific evidence proving the unfair advantages that male athletes possess when competing against women—even male athletes who have undergone “transitioning.”

Ron Schwane/Getty Images

The Cleveland Indians team logo outside Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio (Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

Look for teams with nicknames deemed insensitive to rebrand or announce their intention to do so. Baseball’s Cleveland Indians have already announced that their nickname will officially change after the 2021 season. Other teams with Native American–themed monikers, and perhaps those with Confederate-themed names—like the Rebels of the universities of Mississippi and Nevada-Las Vegas—may soon follow.

As Washington’s NFL team proved last summer, any sports team that refuses to change a nickname deemed insensitive will face intense pressure until it does so.