It’s impossible to say when or if sports leagues will resume play this year as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. But given the weeks- and likely months-long delay of competition, it’s safe to suggest that any resumption of play will occur in the context of considerably shortened seasons.
That being the case, it’s worth asking: What happens in shortened seasons? Are abbreviated seasons more prone to producing surprising champions? Do they create unusual risk to players?
In their current championship eras, the four major sports leagues have experienced a total of 13 shortened seasons — 10 owing to labor disputes, two to war, and one to a pandemic. What lessons can be drawn from those seasons?
▪ A level playing field matters
In 1981, a midyear MLB player strike that ran from June 12-Aug. 9 broke the season into two parts, with playoff berths awarded to the first- and second-half winners of all four divisions (resulting in the first three-round playoff format in baseball). A byproduct of that format — which took no account of games played or overall record — was that the two National League teams with the best winning percentages for the full season (the Cardinals and Reds) missed the playoffs.
‘I don’t know what [the MLB schedule] is going to look like or how the schedule is going to come together, but we have to do everything we can to avoid a 1972.’
Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy
There were significant differentials in the number of games played, with the Cardinals playing just 102 when other teams played as many as 111.
A preseason player strike in 1972 resulted in MLB wiping out the first 13 days of its 162-game schedule. The result was that teams had different numbers of games to play. Most notably, in the AL East, the Tigers had a 156-game schedule, while the Red Sox had 155. When the season ended, Detroit edged the Sox by a half-game, winning the division with an 86-70 record while the Sox went 85-70. That sort of outcome represents something of a nightmare.
“I don’t know what [the MLB schedule] is going to look like or how the schedule is going to come together,” acknowledged Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy, “but we have to do everything we can to avoid a 1972.”
▪ There are potential — but unproven — injury risks
A 2001 study led by trainer Stan Conte in the American Journal of Sports Medicine examined MLB injury patterns over an 11-season span running from 1989-99. The data did not show a remarkable number of injuries in MLB’s strike-shortened 1995 season (which featured 144 games after a shortened spring training) relative to adjacent seasons. However, the demographics of injuries did change, with pitchers representing an unusually high percentage of the total number of days on the injured list.
In 1995, pitchers accounted for 62.5 percent of IL days; in no other year during the 11-year scope of the study did they account for more than 60 percent. Shoulder injuries proved unusually impactful, accounting for 31.6 percent of IL days — up from a five-year average from 1995-99 of about 27.8 percent. (Roger Clemens was out until June after experiencing shoulder woes in his ramp-up toward the season.)
Even so, an atypical number of shoulder injuries in one year isn’t sufficient to prove a heightened injury risk in a shortened season (or, perhaps more precisely, following a shortened preseason).
The NBA, in a 66-game schedule after an owner lockout in 2011-12, had an unusually high number of back-to-back games that some believed put players at an elevated risk of injuries. Those subscribing to that view considered a rare first-round upset of a No. 8 seed over a No. 1 seed (the 76ers over the Bulls), after Chicago star Derrick Rose blew out an ACL in Game 1, a product of the schedule.
▪ A months-long shutdown could yield the shortest season ever.
No sports league has ever played a championship season of less than half its normal length. The 1982 NFL strike reduced the schedule from 16 to nine games — a 44 percent decrease that is the largest of any sport. Hockey has seen a schedule reduced by as much as 43 percent (1994-95 lockout). The NBA played a season shortened by 39 percent after a season-opening lockout in 1998-99. MLB endured a midyear interruption of about 34 percent due to a player strike in 1981.
The NBA has already played more than three-quarters of its season and the NHL has completed roughly 85 percent of its schedule. So long as those leagues can resume play in time to have playoffs, the length of their seasons would fall within past precedents – even if the circumstances resulting in their brevity were unprecedented.
If baseball is back by June, it would have a season within a “normal” range for a shortened campaign. If it can’t resume play until July, it could experience the most dramatic curtailment of any pro sports regular season.
Of course, if there’s no baseball until July, it’s hard to imagine that the NHL or NBA would be able to hold playoffs, making for even more drastic departures from normal seasons.
▪ Upsets? Not so much
When the Spurs won the NBA title in 1998-99 at the conclusion of a lockout-shortened 50-game season, former Bulls coach Phil Jackson (taking a break from coaching after he’d overseen three straight titles in Chicago) claimed that an asterisk should be attached to the championship. The playoffs gave some credence to the notion when the Knicks became the first No. 8 seed to advance to the NBA Finals — but it’s hard to say that the championship yielded a distorted outcome, given that the title was the first of five for the Tim Duncan-led Spurs.
Indeed, a look at title winners in shortened seasons suggests that there aren’t many Cinderella stories that result from truncated campaigns.
In 1918, with the baseball season shortened from 154 to 126 games given the requirement for players to join the military at the start of September, the Red Sox emerged as champions — their fourth title in seven seasons.
The 1981 World Series was played between the Dodgers and Yankees — teams that had the best run differentials that year, and who opposed each other in the Fall Classic for the third time in five seasons.
In the NFL’s shortest season (1982), the Super Bowl was won by the top seed in the NFC, Washington’s first of three Lombardi Trophies in a 10-season span. The two shortened NBA seasons featured titles for a top seed (Spurs) and a No. 2 seed (the Heat, with LeBron James).
The two NHL champions in shortened seasons were a No. 1 seed (Blackhawks in 2012-13) and a No. 5 seed (Devils in 1994-95). While New Jersey’s Stanley Cup run might appear atypical, seeding has less to do with postseason success in the NHL than any other sport; even in full-length seasons, No. 8 seeds have run the playoffs. Moreover, the 1994-95 Devils were coming off a season in which they’d reached the Eastern Conference finals.
Arguably the most unusual champion to emerge in a shortened season came in 1919, when the baseball season was shortened from 154 to 140 games while players returned from World War I. The Reds won the World Series in their only postseason appearance in franchise history prior to 1939.
Yet while the title wasn’t part of a sustained dynasty (part of the reason why the idea of the White Sox throwing the World Series was so compelling), those Reds were 96-44, good for a .686 winning percentage that was the highest by any NL team between 1910 and 1941. Thus, they were a worthy champion.
▪ Failure to take precautions can be tragic
The stakes of taking proper precautions are placed in sharp relief by the 1918-19 Stanley Cup Finals. In March 1919, the series between Montreal (the NHL champion) and Seattle Metropolitans (the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion) was deadlocked through five games (two wins for each team and a tie) when influenza —which was no longer thought to be in a pandemic stage after killing tens of millions in 1918-19 — ravaged both teams. The series was canceled, and Canadiens Hall of Famer Joe Hall died days later.
|Season||When shortened||How shortened||Reason|
|1918||Before season and again during season||154 to 140 to 126||WWI|
|1919||Before season||154 to 140||WWI (returning soldiers)|
|1972||Before season||Wiped out first 13 days of season||Player strike|
|1981||Midseason||162 games to about 107 games||Player strike|
|1994||Midseason||162 games to August cancellation||Player strike|
|1995||Before season||162 games to 144 games||Player strike|
|1982||Midseason||16 to 9||Player strike|
|1987||Midseason||16 to 15 (3 games with replacement players)||Player strike|
|1998-99||Start||82 to 50||Owner lockout|
|2011-12||Start||82 to 66||Owner lockout|
|1918-19||Mid-playoffs||Stanley Cup Finals canceled||Influenza pandemic|
|1994-95||Before season||84 to 48 games||Owner lockout|
|2012-13||Before season||82 to 48 games||Owner lockout|