Winners and losers in sports are often decided by who makes the best adjustments during a game or event, but 2020 required pivots on the fly off the field like never before. The NBA and the NHL created “bubbles” to finish their seasons; ESPN and other networks rushed out documentaries, like The Last Dance, to fill programming holes; and athletes trained at home, prevented from sticking to their usual finely tuned routines.
Sports’ fingerprints were all over the biggest storylines of 2020. The NBA’s decision to halt its season in March awakened many Americans to the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, and athletes were high-profile participants in racial injustice protests and used their social media accounts to amplify their messages. The U.S. presidential election triggered LeBron James’ “More Than A Vote” campaign and team owners opened their massive buildings to serve as socially distant voting outlets.
Here are our selections for 2020’s most intriguing people, companies and trends from the intersection of sports and money.
Best Product: Peloton
“When the coronavirus lockdowns started in March, people often went one of two ways: They drank or worked out,” says Forbes Awards judge Scott Tilton, CEO of Hookit, which tracks the influence of athletes, teams, leagues and brands on social media. Fortunately for Peloton, enough chose workouts. The stock is up nine-fold since its March lows. That is a massive turnaround, with Peloton having opened 2020 reeling from a viral ad campaign, labeled sexist and tone-deaf by many, as well a lawsuit over unpaid music royalties. Questions remained over the market for $2,500 stationary bikes; CEO John Foley is now targeting 100 million subscribers willing to pay $39 a month to sync workouts to their Peloton equipment, up from 1.4 million currently.
Most Intriguing Newcomer: Sky Brown
The 12-year-old Anglo-Japanese skateboarder competes for Great Britain and was on track to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics. She posted a video to her 765,000 Instagram followers of a horrific fall that reportedly resulted in several skull fractures but is determined to be ready for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Brown was featured in a Nike ad campaign with Serena Williams and Simone Biles last year.
Disruptive Innovator: Adam Silver
“It took a lot of guts for Silver to shut everything down,” Tilton says of the NBA commissioner’s decision to pull the plug on all games March 12, the day after the first player, Rudy Gobert, tested positive. Other leagues quickly followed suit. The NBA finished its season in an Orlando “bubble” without a single Covid-19 case over three months, serving as a model for other sports.
Outstanding Firm: Nike
Nike put its unparalleled marketing might behind a pair of high-profile ad campaigns—“Play Inside; Play For The World” and “You Can’t Stop Us”—and public opinion shifted in its favor for its support of Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement. The pandemic also accelerated the company’s high-margin, direct-to-consumer business. Wall Street cheered, with the stock up 43% and a recent market value of $180 billion.
Annus Horribilis: MLB owners and players
The U.S. unemployment rate topped 14% in April, but owners and players of America’s National Pastime squabbled over how to divvy up the sport’s billions. Baseball and its aging fanbase had a chance to be the first major sport to return to play and capture millions of new followers, but it struck out as the public spat delayed the 2020 season further and turned off many longtime fans.
Forbes Forecast: Data Surge
“More data is coming to the world of sports. From sponsorships to athlete performance, data will be everywhere and more readily available,” says Tilton. Teams and leagues increasingly use data for business decisions for ticketing and marketing while body-monitoring startups like Whoop and Oura Ring that track activity, sleep and recovery are proliferating.
And drumroll, please …
The Forbes Person Of The Year In Sports: Naomi Osaka
The 23-year-old tennis ace faced a confidence crisis as her world ranking dipped to No. 10—her lowest point since her breakthrough U.S. Open title in 2018. But the world’s highest-paid female athlete ever discovered her game on and off the court in 2020.
She claimed another Open title in September, but the self-described introvert won even more praise for her activism.
“She used her influence every opportunity she got to bring awareness to racial injustice,” says Tilton. Osaka withdrew from an event to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, wore facemasks with the name of a different Black victim of racial injustice and police brutality before each of her seven Open matches, and was an active voice on Twitter.
Our inaugural Forbes Sports Awards were chosen in consultation with Scott Tilton, CEO of Hookit, which tracks the influence of athletes, teams, leagues and brands on social media.