Just when the sports world was putting the finishing touches on a year of greater normalcy than 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck back with a vengeance. Since Dec. 13 alone, the NHL has postponed 93 games (and counting) over the virus, while the NBA postponed 11 games and the NFL rescheduled three games. Five college football bowls were canceled,1 and numerous college basketball games were shelved as well. In just a matter of weeks, the hyper-transmissible omicron variant has completely upended the protocols that sports leagues had been using to navigate their way through the pandemic.
Mercifully, due to a combination of high vaccination rates, youthful players who are in excellent shape and omicron’s potentially lower inherent severity, most cases have been mild or asymptomatic among athletes so far. But the pandemic-long policy of frequently testing players to prevent uncontrolled viral spread has resulted in a logistical crisis not unfamiliar to other sectors of the economy: Mandatory quarantines are causing an extreme shortage of workers.
Those shortages have been affecting the competitive integrity of the games in myriad ways, from hollowing out rosters to forcing teams to be filled with journeymen. And the ripple effects have extended beyond the makeup of teams to the in-game products themselves, and how the games have been played. Here are just a few ways leagues have been reshaped by rising cases over the last few weeks:
You can’t tell the players without a program
As a response to the growing crisis, many leagues have altered their rules to give teams more flexibility in filling out rosters. The NHL reintroduced last season’s “taxi squad” system — which allows up to six extra players to travel with the big-league team and be available for recall in case of emergency — and relaxed the salary cap constraints around adding players to the active roster to prevent teams from having to play games shorthanded. In the NBA, restrictions were lifted on two-way players, and teams were given the ability to sign hardship replacements for those who tested COVID-positive, which led to situations such as 40-year-old former All-Star Joe Johnson (who hadn’t played since 2018) signing on for a brief stint with the Boston Celtics.
Along with skyrocketing cases among athletes, the implementation of these changes have led to significant lineup adjustments. At one point, the Atlanta Hawks had an entire roster’s worth of players in virus protocols; the Toronto Raptors first met some of their new COVID-replacement teammates 74 minutes before tip-off, en route to a blowout loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers two Sundays ago. When Greg Monroe joined the Minnesota Timberwolves and made his season debut on Dec. 27, he became the 541st player to suit up this NBA season — breaking the all-time NBA record (which was tied between 2020-21 and 2017-18) for most players in a single season. Not even two weeks later, that tally is up to a record-shattering 580 — and the schedule isn’t even halfway finished yet.
Other leagues haven’t been quite as extreme, but only five seasons have seen more different QBs start games than the 61 signal-callers that NFL teams have used so far this year — and only four seasons have seen the NHL use more than the 988 players who have laced up their skates this season. (With around 60 percent of the schedule remaining, the NHL needs to call up or otherwise add only 23 more players to tie last year’s pandemic-fueled record of 1,011 players used.)
While offering opportunities to unsung players who otherwise would not be in the league, these hyper-shuffled rosters have frustrated coaches and fans who expected to see star power in the lineup. The result has been a Ship-of-Theseus quality to teams across the league over the past few weeks: “These weren’t really the Raptors,” wrote SportsNet’s Michael Grange of Toronto’s depleted debacle in Cleveland. “And it was only technically an NBA game.”
That really shows up in how chaotic the league has been recently. Usually the most reliable of the major pro leagues in terms of predictability, the NBA was already sitting at a 63.4 percent winning percentage for favorites in our classic Elo model2 — a relatively low number by historical standards — before omicron really hit. Since Dec. 15, that success rate for favorites has dropped to 59.6 percent, an unthinkably low number by basketball standards. Going back to the ABA merger in 1976, no season in NBA history has seen Elo favorites win fewer than 60 percent of their games; before the pandemic, only one season (2006-07) had ever seen favorites win at less than a 64 percent clip. The unreality of post-omicron NBA rosters has turned the sport upside-down on a nightly basis.
But perhaps more surprisingly, other sports haven’t followed suit. In fact, if anything, the NHL and NFL have been significantly more predictable since omicron began its takeover. Before Dec. 15, Elo’s hockey favorites were winning 59.8 percent of the time this season, a success rate that was already higher than the league’s overall 57.2 percent mark since the 2004-05 lockout; that number has risen further to an eye-popping 72.7 percent after omicron began reshuffling games.3 Similarly, NFL favorites went from winning 56.0 percent of the time before the omicron surge to 72.9 percent after — though it bears mentioning that pro football has had far fewer COVID disruptions than its sporting cousins, and that the earlier part of the NFL season had been unusually chaotic to begin with.
Defense was placed in health-and-safety protocols
Although the NHL and NBA have differed in omicron-related unpredictability, one common thread between the hardwood and ice has been a big uptick in scoring since the middle of last month.
Before Dec. 15, NBA teams were combining to average 215.4 points per game in the 2021-22 season, which was tracking to be the league’s lowest per-game output since 2017-18. (In November, my colleague Ben Dowsett offered up some reasons why early season offenses were struggling.) But ever since, total scoring is up to 220.2 points per contest, which — while still down from last season’s 224.2 points-per-game average — is a statistically significant increase. The NHL’s recent scoring spree is even more noticeable; the league went from a comparatively ordinary 5.9 total goals per game before the omicron wave arrived to a whopping 6.8 after, a pace that (if sustained over an entire season) would be the league’s highest since the halcyon 1992-93 season.
Although the NBA’s biggest scoring leap happened before omicron, in late November and early December, it seems fairly likely that both leagues’ more recent offensive spikes are at least somewhat related to the disruptions of the virus. When NFL scoring exploded last season, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy placed some of the blame on abbreviated offseason programs and generally disorganized defensive coaching during the pandemic. “Usually, when the season starts, the defense is ahead of the offense, then the offense catches up,” Dungy said at the time. “But now the offenses have been ahead since the beginning and the defenses haven’t had time to catch up because you can’t generate as much practice time as they need.”
A similar tale could be told for defenses that have had to adapt to truckloads of new players arriving as last-minute roster replacements this year. “We met [the four new guys] on the bus on the way to the arena,” Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe said of his team’s makeshift strategy that December night against Cleveland. “And so when we got here, we went through a couple of plays. Usually in the meeting right before the game, we watch the other team’s clips, but Coach showed us our clips.”
If replacement players have an hour to learn their new team’s game plan by watching video clips, it probably shouldn’t be shocking that defensive breakdowns have taken place in the NBA and NHL. Maybe the only surprise is that the NFL hasn’t seen a similar increase in scoring — total points per game are actually down from 46.1 pre-omicron to 43.6 ever since — though late-season scoring in the NFL usually declines anyway as the weather gets colder and windier.
All of these factors have rightly called into question the competitive integrity of game results that have occurred since omicron’s rise. Is it fair that some teams have to play with depleted rosters and replacement players while others have their games pushed back over viral outbreaks? How much longer will fans tolerate watching hollow, no-defense shells of the rosters they’re accustomed to seeing?
There are no easy answers, but changes to isolation policies have shortened the amount of time before vaccinated, asymptomatic players can return to action, and the number of players in protocols has dropped in the NBA recently. With indications that COVID-19 cases are at or near their peak across the U.S., sports leagues are hoping to ride out this latest crisis and return to more normal business soon. But the omicron variant is just our latest lesson that, in a pandemic, the next major disruption is always right around the corner.