It all seemed to go downhill on January 27.
Kobe Bryant died in an unfortunate helicopter crash that shocked the world. It was my first day back at work after a wholesome family holiday in South East Asia (RIP travelling) and I was immediately charged with writing up a piece detailing the death of one of my childhood icons, as reports began to emerge out of California that the NBA legend was involved in a tragic accident.
Little did we know, it was just the beginning of the worst, craziest, unprecedented, scariest, weirdest year of our lives.
It's finally time to officially say: 2020, good, and I can't stress this enough, riddance.
The idea of celebrating wins in a year like this seemed gauche at first. But the human spirit needs wins. Sport was one of the few things that offered an escape (and literal wins!) this year, a much-needed glimpse of normality amid global suffering and economic anxiety.
Thanks to our #teamoffivemillion and relative fortune to be tucked away in the corner on an island, the 2020 year of sport turned out to be pretty decent.
Without further ado, it's time to get into the extremely important – and only slightly tone-deaf – bracket of who won New Zealand sport in 2020.
Rules for this very important exercise are definitive and final:
1. The real winner of 2020 is Covid-19. But this would make for an extremely depressing read, so it is barred from the tournament.
2. There were many winners in sport globally in 2020 (shouts to Marcus Rashford) but this bracket will mainly focus on New Zealand sport. Yay us!
3. Don't @ me.
In an attempt to make New Zealand sport less rugby-centric, the four-time Super Rugby champs narrowly miss out on the top 16. Side note: Change your name.
She came agonisingly close to breaking her winless streak, but blew a huge lead at the Marathon Classic and has gone another year without a win. But regardless, it was a strong year for Ko and she's starting to look like a force on the LPGA Tour once again.
As mass cancellations halted the global sporting calendar, esports shrugged and said "learn to code". Online esports tournaments continued and Twitch, the gaming streaming service, is as popular as ever. If you're outraged about breakdancing becoming an Olympic sport, oh boy, just you wait.
Sports people in face masks quick power rankings:
5. Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward choking on his mask and his own incompetence
4. The MLB's Clint Frazier and Didi Gregorius, who hit home runs while wearing a mask
3. James Harden accidentally wearing a "Blue Lives Matter" face mask. Classic.
Everyone is outraged that James Harden was photographed wearing a blue lives matter police mask. However it makes a lot of sense when you realize how much both love to shoot recklessly with black men around. pic.twitter.com/IA9paXJ3rX— Not Bill Walton (@NotBillWalton) July 17, 2020
2. Ben Affleck! It's my favourite celebrity pic of 2020 and don't care that he's not technically in sport. (He's a Boston sports fan so that counts?)
This picture of Ben Affleck smoking with a mask on his nose is hauntingly beautiful and belongs in the Smithsonian. pic.twitter.com/A5EkwqzMFk— Emily Jashinsky (@emilyjashinsky) April 24, 2020
1. Naomi Osaka being awesome
As we were locked down with people we realised weren't nearly as cool or interesting when you had to spend all day with them, board games became the saviour for boredom and awkward social situations. Unfortunately for board games, they were quickly chucked back into the cupboard as the country began opening up again.
While you're here, check out this other bracket I wrote earlier this year to find out New Zealand's favourite board game. Spoiler: capitalism won.
THE TOP 16 SEEDS
1. Super Rugby Aotearoa
The best New Zealand sporting competition of the year, by a mile. It had everything: competitive teams, test match intensity, afternoon games, full crowds, rivalries, and even Dan Carter (sort of).
2. Israel Adesanya
Israel Adesanya defended his UFC middleweight title twice in 2020, which were both billed as his toughest fights of his career. And he handled them with typical aplomb – first a boring but clinical five-round win over Yoel Romero, then completely outclassing Paulo Costa in a second-round TKO win.
3. Fake crowd noise
Fake crowd noise was everywhere, testing sports fans' ability to suspend disbelief and ignore the outside world more than ever before. It kinda worked.
4. Black Lives Matter
An unprecedented year in just about everything else also became a historic one for the racial justice movement. Just about every sport showed its support for Black Lives Matter. American teams went on strike. Even the Black Caps, one of the whitest teams in New Zealand, kneeled for black lives in a show of solidarity.
5. Sports documentaries
When there was no live sport, sports documentaries like The Last Dance rose to the occasion as the new monoculture.
6. Scott Robertson
He's got four Super Rugby titles in a row and is waiting patiently for the All Blacks job, pending Ian Foster's 2021 season.
7. Zoom interviews
We got to see inside the houses of so many sporting figures. Sports stars, they're just like us!
8. Scott Dixon
Dixon won his sixth IndyCar championship this year, cementing his place as New Zealand's greatest motorsport star.
9. Scott McLaughlin
McLaughlin won his third-straight Supercars championship this year, cementing his place as New Zealand's second greatest motorsport star.
10. Courtney Duncan
Duncan won her second-straight motorcross world title this year, cementing her place as New Zealand's third greatest motorsport star.
11. Sky TV
The success of Super Rugby Aotearoa, a new and improved streaming service, and several big moves under recently departed chief executive Martin Stewart saw the broadcasting company make strong strides towards once again becoming New Zealand's "home of sport" in the digital era.
12. Alice Robinson
Robinson is New Zealand's best zoomer athlete. She had a strong 2019/20 season, winning her first Alpine World Cup race in giant slalom, defeating the reigning world champion Mikaela Shiffrin by 0.06 seconds. She then won her second World Cup giant slalom race in February and became the joint world number one ranked giant slalom skier in the world – becoming the first New Zealander to achieve the feat. She's only 19.
13. Sexism in sport
The pandemic and the worldwide sporting shutdown further highlighted the structural and systemic sexism plaguing sport, both globally and in New Zealand. It was that much harder for female athletes to compete this year, with women's sport often taking a backseat to the men's game in the eyes of many financially stricken sports governing bodies.
The Warriors made an unlikely run at the playoffs but just missed out, finishing 10th on the NRL ladder. But they became every NRL fan's second team this year thanks to how they conducted themselves on and off the field. And the fact that they moved to live in a bubble in Australia during a pandemic – sacrificing time with loved ones – to basically save the NRL season.
15. All Blacks babies
So many All Blacks babies were born this year, many of which were named Billie.
16. Athletes on TikTok
Rich professional athletes were kind enough to feed the serotonin deficient masses with so much TikTok content this year.
ROUND OF 16
1) Super Rugby Aotearoa v 16) TikTok athletes
SRA was so good that stadiums were sold out because people actually wanted to watch rugby. Wild! The format will return next year, before we can all look forward once again to the Crusaders smashing the Waratahs 45-6 at like 9.30pm when the Australian teams return.
TikTok athletes are cool and all, but all they do is dance. No memes, no real insight into their lives as a professional sports person, just really average dancing. Plus, New Zealand sport's most prominent TikTok athlete Ardie Savea will probably stop dancing in front of screens if his Super Rugby employers tell him to. In a capitalist sports eco system, employers always win.
In perhaps the biggest miss-match of the tournament, SRA cruises into the quarters.
8) Scott Dixon v 9) Scott McLaughlin
Yes, I rigged this bracket so the two motorsport dudes would face each other in the first round. Frankly, there were too many Scotts in this bracket and it was getting ridiculous so I needed to purge one early. Dixon is clearly the superior Scott, and motors through to the next round.
4) Black Lives Matter v 13) Sexism
*Takes a deep woke breath*
Can't wait to get cancelled. Ok, let's get into this.
The BLM movement normalised protest in sport and gave black and brown athletes a voice like never before. It even reached the apolitical shores of New Zealand sport. The Black Caps, surprisingly, were the first big team to kneel in support of the BLM movement in New Zealand. And Israel Adesanya spoke passionately at the BLM rally in Auckland earlier this year and found his own voice when it came to speaking up about social justice.
But sexism had a low key strong year as well, just kinda doing its thing in the background while everyone was anxiously reading the news. Take women's rugby, for example, where Black Ferns players – who are preparing for a World Cup next year! – were left in the dark about their playing schedule while everyone bent over backwards to make the Rugby Championship happen for the All Blacks this year. NZ Rugby eventually sorted some exhibition games for the women after public pressure but it's disheartening to know that women's sport in New Zealand is in a lot more precarious position thanks to the pandemic. Oh and not to mention the culture of abuse against women within many of our sporting organisations.
This was close. BLM goes through because 2020 needs wins.
5) Sports documentaries v 12) Alice Robinson
We've reached peak sports documentaries. There were so many great ones this year: The Last Dance, Cheer, All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur, Athlete A, among others. There were some good New Zealand docos too, like Sky Sport's Unbreakable about the Breakers' recent NBL season.
On the other hand, we haven't quite yet reached peak Alice Robinson. She's still young and has a whole career ahead of her. And to be honest, after watching way too many TikToks for a grown ass man, I've got teen fatigue. Docos into the top eight.
2) Israel Adesanya v 15) All Blacks babies
As I mentioned earlier, Adesanya had one of the strongest years out of any athlete on the planet. He's now probably the UFC's biggest and most marketable star. Plus he also won the Halberg award for sportsman of the year, where he made a viral speech calling the country out for tall poppy syndrome.
But can he deliver a KO to the miracle of birth? Yes, yes he can because All Blacks babies are boring. Sure, they're cute and will probably grow into amazing athletes, but as far as I know, they can't perform a spinning heel kick straight to someone's temple. Also, there's been way too many All Blacks babies this year. Chill out lads.
Some of the All Blacks who've had babies this year: TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo'unga, Sevu Reece, Ardie Savea. Even former All Black Sonny Bill Williams had one.
Fun fact: Both first-fives Barrett and Mo'unga named their daughters Billie, which is hilarious. (Mo'unga did it first for the record.)
6) Scott Robertson v 11) Sky TV
Razor should've been the All Blacks coach. We all know that. Plus he wants it so bad! He even volunteered to gain international coaching experience as part of the Lions tour next year, just to pad out his CV so NZ Rugby can't say no to him next time.
As for Sky, well, they took ages to adapt to the streaming and cord-cutting era but seem to be going pretty well these days, considering the tough media landscape. Public goodwill seemed to shift back towards Sky thanks to a new rugby deal, more investment in New Zealand sport, and a new sports streaming service that actually works well.
But in November, their CEO Martin Stewart surprised everyone by quitting. It leaves yet another question mark for Sky going into the new year in the already choppy waters of the TV/media business. No such worries for Razor, who eases into the next round.
3) Fake crowd noise v 14) Warriors
The Warriors won the hearts of footy fans, but couldn't quite win enough games to make the NRL finals. Meanwhile, fake crowd noise anaesthetised us for two hours with entertainment and feelings of community, as the world burned. Even the Warriors couldn't escape fake crowd noises.
Technology wins over the human spirit. It is 2020 after all.
7) Zoom interviews v 10) Courtney Duncan
Zoom is something that has probably changed sports media forever. In an interview with Front Office Sports, Fox Sports announcer Jonathan Vilma – who played 10 seasons in the NFL with the Jets and Saints – said he thinks zoom interviews with athletes is here to stay and that it may even help athletes open up more. Unfortunately, zoom interviews aren't that interesting for the viewer. Sports talk tv shows sucked this year, because everything was done over zoom. If we're doomed to see more floating heads in boxes in the post-pandemic sports media, then that's grim.
Meanwhile, Courtney Duncan competed in a real life world championship this year and won. She very well might be the only 2020 world champ in New Zealand sport. She's also super cool. Like, way cooler than bloody zoom.
It's the first upset of the tournament as Duncan moves on.
1) Super Rugby Aotearoa v 8) Scott Dixon
Dixon is a funny case. Every Kiwi sports fan probably knows who he is, but has anyone who isn't a gear head actually watched an IndyCar race? SRA, on the other hand, proved that rugby is still New Zealand's favourite sport – at least for now.
SRA continues its dominant run. As a consolation, Dixon gets to hang on to his crown as New Zealand sport's number one wife guy.
4) Black Lives Matter v 5) Sports documentaries
The Last Dance was one of the biggest pieces of culture to come out this year and showcased the ruthless genius that is Michael Jordan to a whole new generation of fans. One episode focussed on Jordan's famously apolitical career and his infamous quote: "Republicans buy sneakers too."
The NBA GOAT debate between Jordan and LeBron James will probably continue for the rest of time, unless LeBron does something crazy and wins like five more championships. But when it comes to social conscience and using his platform to effect real change, LeBron is untouchable. He was an outspoken leader during the NBA player strikes and has continued to use his platform to speak out against racial injustice.
LeBron's version of The Last Dance, once he hangs up his sneakers, will be a very different story. Because of LeBron and this awesome NZ Herald back page (support print media!), BLM is into the semis.
2) Israel Adesanya v 6) Scott Robertson
A huge matchup between two of New Zealand sport's most interesting personalities.
We here at Bracket HQ love these two men. And when it comes to sporting achievements, both have done a lot during their careers. So, this ultimately comes down to Olympic prowess – specifically breakdancing.
Razor is known for breakdancing after his teams win titles. Adesanya grew up dancing and only gave it up so he could pursue his MMA career.
Here's Razor on some white-bro-at-a-21st-but-he's-46-so-it's-charming energy:
Here's Adesanya ruthlessly breakdancing next to his opponent right after he knocks him out:
Tough luck Razor. Keep working on that CV.
3) Fake crowd noise v 10) Courtney Duncan
Courtney Duncan triumphed over adversity in more ways than one to clinch the world title this year. Not only did she travel to Italy through multiple quarantines to compete, she also almost lost the title after a crash in the penultimate race of the Motocross World Championship, where she fought back from dead last to claim the win. She then got third in the final race of the competition to clinch the world title via a tiebreaker.
Unfortunately, Duncan's run in this bracket comes to an end as she's up against the immense powers of distraction. Fake crowd noise saved the viewing experience with live sport this year, offering some normality during a depressing period. It may have sounded weird for a bit, but you eventually got used to it.
Here's my favourite fake crowd moment, when fake fans were fake paying tribute to fake wrestler Undertaker when he retired from the WWE:
Just pure fakeness at its absolute best.
1) Super Rugby Aotearoa v 4) Black Lives Matter
Seeing Black Lives Matter symbolism throughout world sport was encouraging, but that's all it ever was: symbolism. Once it gets swallowed up by brands and corporations, you end up with empty gestures like this from bloody Maccas:
(Thread) @McDonalds changed the name on their Twitter account to "Amplifying Black Voices." Posting doesn't change the fact that McDonald's has a long history of spreading white supremacy on the job and failing to meet the needs of Black and Brown workers. #FightFor15 pic.twitter.com/RjFRqhC3nE— Fight For 15 (@fightfor15) June 29, 2020
Super Rugby Aotearoa on the other hand, was won by a team named after the political wars between Christians and Muslims fought through the medieval period. The name was literally referenced by the Christchurch shooter. And yet, people stopped caring. The Crusaders quietly moved on, and so did the Kiwi public.
I guess I'm trying to justify knocking out Black Lives Matter in the semifinal, but also trying to say that BLM won't end racism. Black people were still killed by police at a disproportionate rate in America in the three-month period after George Floyd's death. Real change won't come from a slogan or a branding or name change, but through continued, collective action from the people.
SRA books its final spot.
2) Israel Adesanya v 3) Fake crowd noise
The UFC was one of the few sports that didn't use fake crowd noise at all, despite continuing throughout the pandemic. If you did want to listen to some fake crowds in the UFC, you could play EA Sport's UFC 4 on Xbox One or Playstation 4, which Adesanya was on the cover of.
It's Adesanya's (sports) world. We just live in it.
If you've made it this far, you're the real winner of 2020. It's time for the final.
1) Super Rugby Aotearoa v 2) Israel Adesanya
I hate to break it to you but this entire pointless exercise has been purely one dude's opinion. I think it's time we incorporated some science into the bracket for the grand final. And by science, I mean Instagram clout.
To test if SRA deserves to beat Adesanya, let's test a theory from the UFC champ himself: "I'm bigger than the All Blacks."
Let's check the science:
Adesanya's Instagram followers: 4 million
All Blacks' Instagram followers: 1.8 million
So according to science, Adesanya > All Blacks. And All Blacks > Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Therefore, Israel Adesanya > Super Rugby Aotearoa. Science has spoken.
Goodbye, 2020. It's been real.