Happy New Year’s, squad. We don’t need to tell you that 2020 was the worst. But in a tough year for everyone, and a bumpy year for sports, the world’s best and brightest still found a way to break records, win trophies, lead movements, and inspire fans.
So while we’re all ready to wave 2020 goodbye, here are 20 things that happened in women’s sports that didn’t totally suck.
It’s hard to remember now, but the year got off to a sparkling start when the WNBA announced a historic new Collective Bargaining Agreement. With a significant salary bump, fully-paid maternity leave, improved travel arrangements, increased investments in marketing, and a future 50-50 revenue split, the new eight-year CBA was not just a momentous achievement for the league and its players, but a watershed moment in women’s sports.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Nneka Ogwumike (she/her) (@nnemkadi)
A post shared by Nneka Ogwumike (she/her) (@nnemkadi)
There will never be another “Wubble” (we hope). But what the players did this season inside their Florida bubble changed sports forever. From a season-opening moment of silence in honor of Breonna Taylor, to a nationally-aired roundtable on politics and race, the W made social justice an integral part of its season. Players wore jerseys honoring victims of racial violence, endorsed a US Senate candidate, and spearheaded voter registration campaigns, all while putting on a show on the hardwood, night in and night out.
Athletes everywhere found their voices this summer. Sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, protests against racial injustice spread from the streets of Minneapolis to the tennis courts of New York, with female athletes everywhere leading the charge. Many, like Coco Gauff and Simone Manuel, spoke out at rallies and through social media. Others, like Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry, were vindicated after being punished for protesting earlier in their careers. Together, they reset the expectations of what athletes can do.
One of those athletes who rose to the moment was Naomi Osaka, the once-reticent superstar who in 2020 transformed herself into an outspoken activist. Osaka first led a player strike at the Western & Southern Open before winning the US Open while donning a series of seven masks, each one honoring a Black American killed by police or in an act of racial profiling. Osaka said ahead of time she needed to win every match to present every mask, and she did just that, claiming her third major title in three years while reaffirming her status as tennis’ best young player.
Sports viewership was down everywhere this year—everywhere, that is, except women’s sports. The NWSL became the first major team sports league to return to play, staging a Covid-free Challenge Cup en route to a 500% increase in television viewership on the year. WNBA regular season viewership was likewise up 68% for the regular season, while Athletes Unlimited brought softball to television, and NBC picked up FAWSL games from across the pond. In a year when sports viewership was down everywhere else, women’s sports showed up and showed out.
The Challenge Cup was one small step for team sports, one giant leap for the Houston Dash. The oft-derided underdogs from H-Town played with a Texas-sized chip on their shoulders for most of the Cup, winning the club’s first-ever major trophy before double-fisting Budweisers in a celebration fit for Queens.
Her post-Challenge Cup shenanigans sent the internet into a tizzy (see above), while her remarkable return to the USWNT after more than six years away had many of us in tears. No athlete better encapsulated the meaning of perseverance in 2020 than Kristie Mewis, whose 2,722 days between USWNT goals was both a national team record and the epitome of grit.
Her first WNBA season might have been cut short by injury, but let’s not forget all that Ionescu did in 2020. Already the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple doubles, she became the first college basketball player ever (men’s or women’s) to collect 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a career—on the very same day she spoke at the memorial service for her mentor Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
We all knew A’ja Wilson was going to be a WNBA superstar. We just didn’t know when. But in year three, the 24-year-old made the leap, winning league MVP en route to leading the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA Finals. Watching her and Breanna Stewart first duel for the MVP and then for the title, it’s safe to say the league is in very good hands.
Canadian legend Christine Sinclair etched her name into the history books this January when she scored international goal No. 185 at the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament, passing Abby Wambach for the most all-time. At 37 years old, Sinclair is the most-capped international footballer playing today (with 296 national team appearances), and is still going strong heading into next summer’s Olympics.
The feel-good story of the year was none other than Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller. First, she led the Commodores soccer team to their first SEC Tournament title since 1994. A week later, she became the first woman to play in a Power Five conference football game when she kicked off for the Vanderbilt team. Two weeks later, she knocked home two PATs to become the first woman to score in a Power Five game, inspiring countless fans while expertly laying waste to the trolls of Twitter.
All these guys in my comments are like Uncle Rico... pic.twitter.com/fr4JnTklRH— Sarah Fuller (@SarahFuller_27) December 27, 2020
All these guys in my comments are like Uncle Rico... pic.twitter.com/fr4JnTklRH
We’re going to throw ourselves a high-five for this one. The Just Women’s Sports podcast debuted at #1 in sports and #16 overall, and just 20 episodes in, we’re cruising past 750,000 downloads at last check. This wouldn’t be possible without all you faithful listeners. Thank you, thank you, thank you—and rest assured, more pods are coming in 2021.
Our very first podcast guest was none other than Alex Morgan, USWNT superstar and, as of May, a first-time mom. Her daughter Charlie accompanied Morgan abroad as she suited up for Tottenham Hotspur this fall, where the two-time World Cup champ barely missed a beat in her return to play. Recording two goals in five appearances for the club, Morgan is on track to lead the USWNT in Tokyo next summer.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13)
A post shared by Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13)
In a year of surprises, Sue Bird reminded us that some things never change. At 40 years old, she’s still one of the best floor generals in the WNBA, leading the Seattle Storm to their fourth league title inside the WNBA bubble while also playing a pivotal role in the league’s social justice efforts. Adding to her jewelry collection, Sue Bird also got engaged to fellow superstar Megan Rapinoe. Name a more anticipated post-Covid wedding. Spoiler alert, you can’t.
Pitching legend Cat Osterman likewise spent 2020 proving that age is just a number. After coming out of retirement in 2018 in the hopes of earning a spot on Team USA, Osterman casually pitched her way to the first-ever Athletes Unlimited individual title, fanning a good number of players who grew up watching Osterman play. 37 years old and still the best in the world, Osterman is on a mission to win Olympic gold in Tokyo.
How it started vs. How its going! Sorry @catosterman had to do it! ???????????? @AUProSports pic.twitter.com/BScQptx4NO— Aubrey Leach (@aubrey_lynne10) October 7, 2020
How it started vs. How its going! Sorry @catosterman had to do it! ???????????? @AUProSports pic.twitter.com/BScQptx4NO
In a condensed season, Ross and Klineman swept the three-tournament AVP Champions Cup, winning all 12 of their matches over three weekends of competition. After winning bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2016, Ross and her new partner now look poised to enter next summer’s Olympics as the favorites to take home gold.
Already the longest-running professional women’s soccer league ever in the U.S., the NWSL looks poised to achieve even greater heights as it expands its footprint with two additional clubs. Racing Louisville FC will begin play in 2021, while Angel City FC, led by a superstar ownership featuring Natalie Portman, Alexis Ohanian, Serena Williams, and many others, will kick off in 2022. High-profile investors signal a new era of growth for the NWSL, and you better believe we’re ready for take off.
All four 2020 LPGA majors were won by first-time major winners. Sophia Popov’s British Open win may have been the most unique, as the 304th-ranked player had been caddying for a friend just a few weeks before, but in each of the year’s majors, the LPGA’s parity was on display. As the year concludes, eight of the top ten ranked players are 27 or younger, and the future of the tour has never looked brighter.
Speaking of future superstars: at 24 years old, Vivianne Miedema has already scored more international goals (70) for the Netherlands than any other player before her, on either the women’s or men’s teams. And this year, she became the all-time leading goalscorer in FA Women’s Super League history, with 53 goals (and counting) in only 55 appearances for Arsenal. Look for the Dutch striker to be a star at next summer’s Olympics.
With a 104-61 win over Pacific on December 15th, longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer passed the Pat Summitt for the most victories in Division I history. It may have come in an empty gym, but nothing could diminish the importance of VanDerveer’s achievement. “I really hope Pat Summitt is looking down and saying, ‘Good job, Tara. Keep it going,'” said VanDerveer after the game. With Stanford 7-0 and ranked No. 1, VanDerveer looks ready to add to her tally as well as her trophy case in 2021.
Shoutout to these two #BossWomen for all the wins on and off the court ???? #WCW pic.twitter.com/WFIECapenl— WNBA (@WNBA) December 16, 2020
Shoutout to these two #BossWomen for all the wins on and off the court ???? #WCW pic.twitter.com/WFIECapenl
2020 is over. But as we look back on a year like no other, it seems only right to take a peek at what’s to come, and no sporting event in 2021 will be bigger than the Tokyo Olympics.
Next summer’s Olympics will provide the first opportunity for the world to come together since the pandemic began. No matter what happens, it’s bound to be historic, with so many pre-Olympics storylines already swirling. What will organizers do to keep everyone safe? How will athletes use the stage to drive social change, especially after the US said there will be no punishments for protesting?
And then there’s the question of who wins all the medals.
Needless to say, there will be drama, exultation, disappointment and relief, and Just Women’s Sports will be there to cover it all. Be sure to keep your eyes (and ears) peeled this winter and spring, as we’ll be rolling out special coverage starting in January. And trust us, you won’t want to miss what we’ve got cooking up.