When you look at sports in 2020, COVID-19 has lurked around every corner — and with it the uncertainty that’s come from changing schedules, safety protocols and financial difficulties.
But aside from the pandemic, it’s also been a year of “monumental change,” WBEZ sports contributor Cheryl Raye-Stout said. Raye-Stout has been in Chicago sports radio for more than 40 years — and she was one of the first women sports journalists in the city.
From wide-ranging management changes to big leaps ahead for women, Raye-Stout looked back at a weird year in sports and predicts what we might expect for Chicago’s teams in 2021.
It’s been a rough year financially for most of Chicago’s teams, but the Bears in particular are “could face huge financial woes,” Raye-Stout said.
By some estimates, games without fans in the stands could cost football teams on average $7 million a game from the loss of ticket sales, concessions and parking. For the Bears, 2020 losses come after years of underperforming financially.
But they’re not alone. The Cubs estimate they’ve lost $140 million since the pandemic began. White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said this year his losses from the teams are ‘‘in the nine figures.’’
The Blackhawks alone seemed to weather the virus. According to Forbes, the team is one of the few in the National Hockey League to retain its value this year.
Management in mayhem
Mostly unrelated to the financial difficulties, Chicago’s sports teams faced huge management and leadership shakeups.
The Blackhawks fired president John McDonough after 13 years. Recently, the Blackhawks elevated General Manager Stan Bowman to president of hockey operations and hired Jamie Faulkner to be the president of business operations. Faulkner is the first woman hired at that level in the Blackhawks front office.
The Bulls entire front office was fired following three seasons of missing the playoffs, The new leadership team then quickly fired the head coach and most of the assistant coaches.
After breaking a six-game losing streak, the Bears winning their last two gives a slim chance to make the playoffs. The status of Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace could be determined at season’s end.
And Cub’s President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who built the team that won the World Series for the first time in more than a century, left his role with a year left on his contract. The team will now be led by General Manager Jed Hoyer, who now has the task of revamping the Cubs after four years of disappointing performances after their World Series win in 2016.
On the South Side, White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn fired manager Rick Renteria even after the team made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But it was the replacement — Hall of Famer and former White Sox manager Tony LaRussa — that was particularly controversial. Besides being charged with a DUI this year and pleading guilty to a reckless driving misdemeanor, many thought that the amount of time the 76-year-old LaRussa had been away from a MLB dugout would be a problem with the young Sox core. He is bilingual, which will be as asset.
Still, LaRussa has three World Series titles, six league championships and 12 division titles. And his hiring adds even more expectation that it’s the South Side team’s time for a World Series run.
On the college level, the University of Illinois fired head football coach and former Bears coach Lovie Smith. The school replaced Smith with former University of Wisconsin and University of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.
Women with Chicago ties reach big heights
Kim Ng — a woman who spent much of her career in Chicago as a University of Chicago softball star and later the White Sox assistant director of baseball operations — was named as the first female general manager of any major sports league. She’ll take over the Miami Marlins.
“[Ng] was someone who should’ve had that job years ago,” Raye-Stout said. “She’s has every aspect of the job and she’s done it well. … The fact that she’s gotten it now says other [women] can get it, too.”
And the Blackhawks made history, too, by hiring their first female coach, Olympic hockey forward Kendall Coyne Schofield. Kendall, who is from Palos Heights, Ill., will be a player development coach and will still play for the USA team in the next winter Olympics. She joins a small cohort of women coaches in the sport; the first female hockey coach was only hired in 2016.
“[These hirings are] telling any woman, any young girl, of being able to reach those heights,” Raye-Stout said. “And they’re big heights.”
2021: Still just as confusing
What will 2021 look like for sports?
The NFL has said it will finish its season no matter what, even in the face of outbreaks and canceled games.
The NBA just started its pushed-back season this week, with 10 fewer games than usual and a new structure to decrease travel. And 48 players tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of testing, with additional positive tests in the weeks since.
The hockey season was also pushed back; it’s set to start on Jan. 13. And just this week the MLB has started another debate with the players’ union whether baseball will be delayed from its scheduled start in April 2021. While players want their full salaries, teams say they won’t start without a significant amount of fans in the stands.
And with the summer Olympics pushed back to 2021, women’s basketball and soccer seasons — which often occur over the summer — may be completely disrupted.
Mary Hall is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @hall_marye. Cheryl Raye-Stout is a sports contributor for WBEZ.