A Triple Crown. A near grand slam in tennis. Not one, but two no-hitters. We had controversy about deflated footballs and inspiration in the form of a college football team. But the biggest national sports story of 2015 is one you probably didn’t see coming. We would bet on it. Here’s our list of the top 10 national sports stories of 2015.
1. The rise (and potential fall) of fantasy sports
What has made a greater impact on sports than anything else over the past decade? High-definition television? Perhaps. But even casual sports fans have become obsessed with daily results that actually have little to do with real teams. Every fan is his own owner thanks to daily fantasy sports. You can’t watch a sporting event anymore without seeing ads for FanDuel and DraftKings, the giants of fantasy sports. The two have combined to spend more than $200 million on advertising during football season alone. Their signage is all over stadiums and arenas. It’s a business worth more than $26 billion that could double by next year. It has grown so fast that some states are trying to shut it down (for now) to get a handle on regulations and whether daily fantasy constitutes gambling. And, you wonder, if the states simply want to get in on the action. This year is when the daily fantasy leagues blew up, making it the story in sports in 2015.
2. A Triple Crown winner
In 1977, Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become the 11th thoroughbred to win horse racing’s famed Triple Crown. Then, over the next 37 years, 13 horses won the first two races only to be denied (or not even race) in the third leg. That list included excellent horses Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence, Smarty Jones and California Chrome. The feeling was that a Triple Crown might never be done again, that the road was now too difficult. But American Pharoah proved it was not impossible by closing the deal with a solid victory in the Belmont. He’s a worthy candidate for Sports, uh, Personality of the Year.
3. Our women
No women’s team has had a greater influence on this country than the famed 1999 U.S. soccer team that won the World Cup. That team featured the likes of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. The result of that was a new generation of players who stole our country’s hearts in 2015. This U.S. women’s team’s new generation of stars: Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and the greatest women’s player ever, Abby Wambach. Led by Lloyd’s three-goal performance, the United States crushed Brazil 5-2 in the 2015 World Cup final to cap a glorious month of soccer.
4. Serena Slam
Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, Serena Williams, fell short of the first grand slam in tennis since Steffi Graf in 1988 but still had the most dominating year of her incredible career. Williams completed the Serena Slam, winning the U.S. Open in 2014 then 2015’s Australian and French Opens as well as Wimbledon, giving her all four major titles at once. In one of tennis’ biggest upsets ever, Williams lost to 32-year-old and unseeded Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the 2015 U.S. Open. Still, Williams appears on her way to being the greatest female tennis player (and maybe athlete) ever.
5. Air pressure and cool under pressure
Super Bowl week in 2015 started with persistent claims that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady deflated footballs. Brady and the Pats won the Super Bowl thanks to a mind-boggling and stupid decision by the Seahawks that led to a game-saving interception. But the Deflategate controversy lasted throughout the summer and ended with Brady coming out on top and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell left with egg on his face. Some still believe Brady and the Pats cheated, but he still has four Super Bowl rings.
6. The knockout
No athlete was bigger in his or her sport than MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, who became known for putting opponents away in mere minutes or, in some cases, seconds. She was unbeatable, unstoppable. Some thought her head was too big. Maybe that’s why a fighter named Holly Holm had no problem kicking it. Less than a minute into the second round of their Nov. 15 fight, Holm’s devastating left kick to Rousey’s jaw knocked out Rousey and sent shock waves through the sport.
7. The streak
For a minute there, it looked as if super shooter Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors were never going to lose a game. The defending NBA champs started the 2015-16 season by going 24-0, and their streak had reached 28 games going back to last regular season. The run ended five games shy of tying the all-time NBA record set by the 1971-72 Lakers when they were upset by the Milwaukee Bucks. Still, the champs are making another run by going after the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 wins in an NBA season.
8. Standing up for a cause
Sometimes, sports are more than a game. Sometimes, sports can impact real life. Such was the case in the fall when members of the Missouri football team went on strike to support a graduate student who was on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of African-American students on campus, as well as the lack of action by the university president. While the student had been on the hunger strike for a week, it wasn’t until the football team walked away from the sport that the president resigned, proving football can be more than wins and losses.
9. Two no-nos
Throwing a no-hitter is still rare enough that pitchers celebrate by jumping up and down on the mound while being mobbed by teammates. But you want rare? How about throwing two no-hitters — in one season. Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer joined an elite list in 2015, becoming just the sixth in major-league history to throw two no-nos in a single season. And check this out: Scherzer nearly threw four in 2015. He had a perfect game broken up in the seventh inning of the game right before his first no-hit start. In the start before his second no-hitter, Scherzer pitched 71/3 without allowing a hit.
10. Legends say goodbye
Each year, the sports world loses stars to retirement or death, but 2015 was particularly a tough one for us. NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon and college football icon Steve Spurrier, the former Gators coach, walked away. Lakers star Kobe Bryant announced his intention to retire after this season. And long-time North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died.
Oh, there’s one more goodbye, although we don’t feel bad about this one: Because he’s a cheat and a lousy cheat at that, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been kicked out of soccer for eight years. That’s about 100 years too short.