The Longest Stoppages in Sports History
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic halting professional leagues in 2020, not since World War II had the sports world suddenly stopped.
While it's fair to call a pandemic and global war outliers, American sports do have a history of temporary stoppages. Among them, the NHL missed an entire season, and the 1994 MLB campaign ended abruptly before the World Series.
This is perhaps an inglorious look at the history books, with a clear and immediate acknowledgment that crises and labor disputes are two very different things.
After a brief section on World War II, the list is organized in ascending order based on the length of the stoppage.
World War II Stoppages
Before the Premier League formed in 1992, the Football League First Division stood as England's top flight. The Football League endured a seven-year stoppage because of World War II, beginning September 1939 after Germany invaded Poland and lasting until 1946.
Among many cancellations, the Summer and Winter Olympics were struck in both 1940 and 1944. From 1940-45, neither Wimbledon nor The Open Championship took place. The Masters and U.S. Open missed three and four years, respectively. The PGA Championship didn't happen in 1943.
The complete list, without question, is much larger. Some sports continued, but World War II hushed the athletic landscape.
Notable Short-Term and Offseason Stoppages
1992 NHL strike: 10 days
The beginning of a trend in the NHL, 1992 marked the first of four disputes over the next 20 years. This one, fortunately, only lasted 10 days as players received an increase in playoff bonuses and owners added a few games to the schedule.
1972 MLB strike: 13 days
Players wanted an increase in pension fund payments, which they received after a short delay. The season started 13 days late but still included at least 153 games for every club.
1987 NFL strike: 24 days
Early in the 1987 NFL season, players went on strike to raise minimum salaries and improve free agency. About 85 percent of the league sat out, and the owners responded by signing replacement players. The 85 percent returned in Week 7.
1995 NBA lockout: 80 days
The labor dispute spanned from July 1 to September 18, focusing on player salaries, the salary cap and revenue sharing. The 1995-96 season started on time.
2011 NFL lockout: 136 days
When the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired in March 2011, discussions for a new CBA quickly broke down. The lockout officially began March 12 and ended July 25 as the players ratified a deal the owners had passed four days earlier.
1981 MLB Strike
Length: 50 days
Two months into the 1981 MLB season, dugouts and stadiums found themselves empty for the next seven weeks. The owners demanded compensation for losing a player in free agency, but players argued it would devalue the system.
While they ultimately agreed to a deal in July, the aftermath is arguably even more interesting.
For example, the St. Louis Cardinals finished with the best record in the NL East. However, since the owners split the season, the Cardinals actually missed the playoffs because the Montreal Expos and Philadelphia Phillies each won a half of the season.
The format also allowed the Kansas City Royals to reach the postseason. After posting a 20-30 pre-strike record, the Royals went 30-23 after play resumed. Overall, 50-53 Kansas City had the fifth-worst winning percentage of 12 AL teams.
In October, the Los Angeles Dodgers toppled the New York Yankees to win the World Series.
1982 NFL Strike
Length: 57 days
You might recall 1982 as the season in which a kicker—Washington's Mark Moseley—won the league MVP. Washington defeated the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, too.
More notably, though, 1982 included a midseason strike.
After completing Week 2, players argued to increase their percentage of revenue sharing. Teams ultimately played nine regular-season games before a unique one-time playoff format. The NFL eliminated division standings, awarding 16 playoff spots—eight to the AFC and NFC—and seeding them on overall record.
1994-95 NHL Lockout
Length: 104 days
As baseball faced a mid-year stoppage that eliminated the postseason, NHL owners wanted to avoid a similar fate. The absence of a CBA for 1994-95 made real the possibility of a strike.
Unlike most stoppages, players actually reported to training camps initially. Still, the lockout began October 1.
At first, a salary cap seemed the primary issue. That conversation slowly disappeared as the owners focused on a rookie cap. Large-market teams eventually decided the income from a shortened season meant more than the lockout.
Shortened to 48 games, the regular season began in January. Led by Claude Lemieux and Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils swept the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.
2012-13 NHL Lockout
Length: 113 days
Eight years after a lockout ruined an entire campaign, the NHL missed about half of 2012-13. This stoppage spanned three months and reduced the regular season from 82 games to 48.
In a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners wanted to reduce the players' share of revenue and gain leverage in contract negotiations. The players, of course, fought back over a contentious 113-day stretch from September to January.
During that time, many players went to Europe. They returned in January, and Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks dispatched the Boston Bruins to hoist the Stanley Cup.
2011-12 NBA Lockout
Length: 161 days
As the clock struck midnight and the calendar flipped to July, NBA owners locked out the players.
Negotiations had started in early 2011, but talks continually failed to solve disagreements over the salary cap and revenue sharing. The stoppage unofficially ended after a late November agreement (the lockout officially ended on December 8), which is largely remembered as a victory for the owners. They received a much larger portion of revenue.
Following a 66-game regular season, LeBron James won the first of two NBA titles alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals.
1998-99 NBA Lockout
Length: 204 days
Similar to the lockout 13 years later, the NBA entered a stoppage as it opened a new league year in 1998.
Owners exercised a clause in the CBA that allowed them to reopen the agreement, and they focused on limiting player salaries. As a result, owners successfully added a maximum salary and rookie pay scale, while minimum salaries rose slightly.
On the court, 1998-99 brought the beginning of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty. They upended the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals, winning the first of five championships in a 16-season span.
1994 MLB Strike
Length: 232 days
Beyond the 2004-05 NHL lockout, 1994 is the only time a major American sport began its season and ended without a championship.
The impact is undeniable, too.
While arguing against the institution of a salary cap, players walked off the diamond August 12 and never returned that season. Negotiations failed, and in September, the league called off the World Series. They wouldn't reach an agreement until April 1995.
One of the greatest "what if?" questions in MLB history is whether the league-leading Montreal Expos may have stayed in Canada had they won the World Series. Instead, one decade later, the Expos relocated and became the Washington Nationals.
The strike also trimmed the 1995 season from 162 games to 144.
2004-05 NHL Lockout
Length: 310 days
Nothing short of disastrous.
When the CBA expired in mid-September 2004, owners and players had no agreement in place. Like the issue a decade earlier, a salary cap served as the primary topic. Owners wanted it. Players did not. And the disagreement wiped out the season.
Hundreds of players went to Europe while awaiting a resolution, which finally arrived in July 2005 and included a salary cap. In return, players received a larger share of revenue—which, you may recall, affected the 2012-13 season—and guaranteed contracts.
To date, the 2004-05 NHL season is the lone moment an American sport lost an entire campaign to labor negotiations.