What a wild, wacky, weird year it’s been for sports, as the novel coronavirus pandemic has made changing — and then re-changing — schedules a common practice this season.

What did all the cancellations, postponements and adjustments do to disrupt sports at all levels of competition? Plenty.

We asked a panel of four from the Deseret News sports team to share what they missed most in the sports world this year.

In this Monday, April 6, 2015 file photo, Duke players celebrate after the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament championship game against Wisconsin in Indianapolis. | David J. Phillip, Associated Press

NCAA winter sports championships, aka March Madness, gymnastics championships, etc.

I love March Madness. There, I said it.

If I can help it, I have the same setup every single year: A high definition projector pointed at a wall, which is painted eggshell white for good measure. A laptop is connected to said projector, with four windows pulled up simultaneously. In each window, there is a different NCAA Tournament game being played.

The setup really only works during the first and second rounds of the tournament — so, opening weekend — but it is a sight to behold. My greatest wish is that the U.S. government would just give in already and declare the opening weekend of the tournament a national holiday.

It doesn’t matter who is playing. I’m more invested in random March Madness games than nearly any sporting event featuring my alma mater. To say that I missed that in 2020 would be an understatement.

Dandy dozen: Top 12 March Madness moments by Utah collegians in NCAA tournaments

For fans of BYU and Utah State, the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament was an especially painful blow, given each program had one of their best teams in recent memory. To not even get to see Yoeli Childs, T.J. Haws or Sam Merrill in action, there was a real disappointment in that.

I didn’t only miss March Madness, though. One of the highlights of a normal April for me are the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships. Criminally undervalued, in my opinion, the gymnastics championships are a showcase for some of the world’s greatest female athletes, and really just athletes period.

The new postseason format, which was adopted in 2019 and includes five rounds of competition, has only made things more exciting. The 2019-20 postseason was, by all appearances, going to be fantastic. Oklahoma and Florida had been dominant all year long, and were rightfully co-favorites, but Utah, UCLA and Michigan all had the potential to make some real noise.

Some of the best individual gymnasts in the sports history were set to compete one final time too, whether it by Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols or UCLA’s Kyla Ross, to name a pair.

To have that season cut short, without even having conference champions named. Yeah, that one hurt.

— Trent Wood

The people who make sports what they are

Every once in a while since March, before we decided we were going to put this project together, I took to Twitter in moments of reflection to say things that I was missing because of the pandemic. Those tweets are coming in handy now!

Just a few weeks ago, there was a night I was missing going to Zions Bank Basketball Campus where the Utah Jazz practice. When The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted on Nov. 11 that Russell Westbrook wanted to be traded by the Houston Rockets, I realized I missed the drama of NBA transactions. There were multiple times I tweeted about missing nights on Twitter when something crazy or exciting happened in a game that everyone was talking about.

As I think about it, the biggest thing about sports that the pandemic took away from me was the connection with people that sports provides. As much as the games in and of themselves are great, they are nothing without the people involved in them, including players, fans and so many others.

I feel like I’ve long known that, but this was a classic case of being without something helping me to realize the value of it. There’s plenty of reasonable debate about whether sports should be happening now as we continue to fight the pandemic, but I’m thankful they’re on, and I’m so looking forward to the time when we can all more fully be part of the sports experience again.

— Ryan McDonald

No in-state rivalry football games

I’m a sucker for regional rivalries — two fan bases so familiar with each other, they know best what banter will irritate the opposing fans the most.

That was the toughest thing for me to swallow about this 2020 college football season. Raised in northern Utah, I’ve come to love those in-state rivalry games, and this year just couldn’t deliver amidst the pandemic. (Side note: at least we had a few of these in-state games in college basketball to end the year — even if football was shut out.)

Because the state’s three FBS programs all belong to different conferences (and the Cougars prefer the independence route), we knew these in-state games were put on momentary hiatus when the Pac-12 and Mountain West went with conference-only schedules.

It reduced the BYU-Utah rivalry to social media chatter — queue another #10isComing joke or a Cougar fan claiming this was their year to stop the streak — and while that’s entertaining and all, nothing compares to the actual games being played. BYU-Utah State was gone, too, and it’s been a competitive series over the past several years.

The closest thing to a rivalry game college football fans in Utah experienced this fall was the Utah-USC Pac-12 South tilt or BYU’s annual matchup with Boise State. While those are important games every year, especially from a national perception standpoint, they still don’t match the fierce rivalries this state has cultivated over decades.

This even impacted the state at the FCS level. Dixie State made the move to Division I this season and was scheduled to make its FCS debut just up I-15 at Southern Utah in early September, but by mid-August, most teams and conferences at the FCS level had moved their schedules to the spring. Now, that matchup is gone, and Dixie State will start its D-I era in the spring at Tarleton State. At least we’ll still have Weber State and Southern Utah face each other in March — if the pandemic will cooperate — though it’s going to feel an awful lot like a spring scrimmage, if I’m being honest.

This year will always have an asterisk in my book, thanks to these in-state games being wiped out for the fall.

— Brandon Judd

Fans tailgate at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO on Oct. 13, 2019 | Joe Coles

The fans and atmosphere

The biggest thing missing from sports in 2020 were the fans.

It’s still so weird to tune into a college football game, or NFL game, or NBA game, or college basketball game and see an empty stadium and only hear fake crowd noise.

I was one of a few people who went in person to cover the Utah vs. USC football game this November. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. In normal times, when driving to Rice-Eccles Stadium, I would have been greeted with traffic on Foothill Drive. I would have driven past the tailgate lot on Guardsman Way and seen thousands of people tailgating in anticipation of the game. The stadium would have been filled to capacity.

Instead, there was no traffic getting up to the stadium. The tailgate lot was empty and not a single fan sat in the 45,807 seats at Rice-Eccles. When Nephi Sewell returned a fumble for a touchdown to tie the game against the Trojans, the press box would have normally shook from the noise. Instead, silence.

Though I did eventually get used to watching sports with no fans, it’s not nearly as fun. Fans are such a big part of the game. They can cause false starts in football and cause coaches to take timeouts to quiet the crowd when teams get on a run in basketball. Players feed off the energy that a crowd brings. The atmosphere of games is what caused me to fall in love with sports. You can’t accurately capture the anticipation in the air when walking to a big game with a crowd of people, the pregame din of the fans as they wait for the game to start, the nervousness of the crowd before a big play and the exhilaration and euphoria of a win unless you’re there. In 2020, you can’t hear the loudness of the crowd, the wave of noise washing over you, the feeling of being with thousands of people, hoping, willing and cheering your team to a win.

One of the last live sporting events I attended as a fan before the pandemic hit was traveling to Kansas City with my dad. I have cheered for the Kansas City Chiefs since I was a freshman in high school and, after watching them play in Arrowhead Stadium on TV for so many years, I finally got to take a trip there in 2019. Before the trip, I posted on Twitter that I was traveling from Utah and was looking for an idea of what to see, eat and do in KC. Within hours, I had 100 recommendations. It really underscored how much of a community a fanbase can be.

My dad and I explored Kansas City and ate barbecue every day — I’d put KC’s barbecue up against any in the country. On game day, we arrived at the stadium three hours before the noon kickoff against the Houston Texans and wandered the tailgate lot with tents and fans, stretching as far as the eye could see, in the parking lots surrounding the stadium. People were eating ribs at 9 a.m., playing catch with their kids and enjoying a picture-perfect Sunday morning. It’s a scene that could only happen at a football game.

After watching hundreds of Chiefs games on TV, it felt surreal to actually be watching the game live in a place that I’ve dreamed about going to for so many years. Though the Chiefs lost, the experience was still incredible. Being with 76,416 fans roaring in unison, chanting and yelling, all cheering for the same thing is a communal experience that can’t be beat.

For seven hours on a Sunday in October, all of the stress in my life melted away, and I just focused on 22 players on an 100-yard field, along with 76,415 other fans. Going to the game provided a memory that my dad and I will cherish for the rest of our lives, and when it comes down to it, that’s what I love most about sports.

Joe Coles and his dad, Matthew, at a Kansas City Chiefs game on Oct. 13, 2019. | Joe Coles

Everyone reading this article has a favorite game they’ve attended, an experience they’ll never forget. I want you to think back to attending that game, the memories you have of it and the emotions that you experienced.

Maybe you were there at the 1984 Holiday Bowl when BYU rallied to beat Michigan and win the national championship, or at Cougar Stadium when Ty Detmer-led BYU knocked off No. 1 Miami in 1990. Maybe you were at Rice-Eccles Stadium on a November night in 2004 when the Utes beat BYU to finish a perfect regular season and busted the BCS open, or at the Fiesta Bowl. Maybe you were there when Brian Johnson found Freddie Brown to beat TCU in 2008 or at the Sugar Bowl when Utah shocked Nick Saban and Alabama. Maybe you were at the Delta Center in 1997 or 1998 as the eyes of America turned to Salt Lake City, part of the crowd that was so deafening that Phil Jackson had to wear earplugs as John Stockton and Karl Malone battled the greatest player ever, Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Maybe you were there when Donovan Mitchell led the Jazz to a playoff series win during Game 6 against Oklahoma City in 2018, scoring 38 points and ushering in the next era of Jazz basketball.

I can’t wait until we have a widespread COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic ends, and fans can go back to packing stadiums and creating new memories.

— Joe Coles