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Ranking the top 10 annual sports days of the year

First Saturday in May? First one in September? Sunday at Augusta? Let the debate ensue.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) faces pressure from the Chiefs defense during Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7. Super Bowl Sunday annually is the most overhyped day on the sports calendar year, but still draws a massive global audience.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) faces pressure from the Chiefs defense during Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7. Super Bowl Sunday annually is the most overhyped day on the sports calendar year, but still draws a massive global audience. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 19

A rudimentary scan of sports channels clearly reveals a grim reality: We’re mired in mid-July’s dog days.

And Wednesday is the mangy mutt of them all.

In the All-Star Game’s immediate wake, baseball has Wednesday off, making it the only day of the calendar year when all four major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) and college’s two biggest sports (football, hoops) are inactive. For one tedious 24-hour stretch, we’re reminded of the bleakness — minus the trepidation — of the pandemic’s outset, when all was shut down.

But why dwell on the depressing? We’re going opposite-field here, using this brief dormancy to rank the nation’s best sports days of the year. Fortunately, there’s a litter of them.

10. Sunday of Memorial Day weekend

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29.
Marcus Ericsson of Sweden celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29. [ MICHAEL CONROY | AP ]

If the Daytona 500 isn’t the Super Bowl Sunday for racin’ buffs, this day certainly is. Auto racing’s three biggest series all stage marquee events, highlighted of course by the Indianapolis 500, which generally starts shortly after noon. Providing the morning prelude is the Monaco Grand Prix (Formula One), with the Coca-Cola 600 (NASCAR’s longest race) closing things out at night.

9. Masters, final round

Tiger Woods walks up the 17th fairway during the final round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., on Nov. 15, 2020.
Tiger Woods walks up the 17th fairway during the final round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., on Nov. 15, 2020. [ MATT SLOCUM | AP ]

Resplendent azaleas, Jim Nantz’s soothing monotone, and tension with every tee shot. These traditions — like no other — never fail to annually emerge and enthrall on that spring Sunday at Augusta, when the final round of pro golf’s premier event is staged. Similar to the Kentucky Derby, the final few holes captivate even the most casual of fans. And when a big name (i.e., Tiger, Phil) is in the hunt, the gallery becomes global in magnitude.

8. Opening day, Major League Baseball

A fan rings a cowbell as the Rays are introduced during their regular season home opener against the Orioles at Tropicana Field on April 8.
A fan rings a cowbell as the Rays are introduced during their regular season home opener against the Orioles at Tropicana Field on April 8. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In a previous era, much of society shut down — or at least took an extended lunch — to observe arguably the most anticipated day on the big-league calendar. The hubbub has dissipated some in recent decades as baseball’s popularity has fallen far behind the NFL, but opening day remains rife with hope (for all 30 teams) and pageantry. It’s still one of the few days during the regular season that one can observe a mostly-full Tropicana Field.

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7. Kentucky Derby day

Rich Strike (21), racing at 80-1 odds, stunned a global audience by winning the 148th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 7.
Rich Strike (21), racing at 80-1 odds, stunned a global audience by winning the 148th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 7. [ JEFF ROBERSON | AP ]

The one day when horse racing commands the room. Hundreds of millions annually are wagered on “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” though most bettors don’t know a furlong from a foal. No matter. The first Saturday in May is about pageantry, parties, garish hats, goofy horse names and one indigenous libation (mint julep). Sometimes (as in 2015), the derby offers a glorious exacta, coinciding with the final day of the NFL draft. Now that’s a full sports day.

6. Super Bowl Sunday

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with his family as he hoists the Lombardi Trophy following his team's 31-9 rout of the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7, 2021.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with his family as he hoists the Lombardi Trophy following his team's 31-9 rout of the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7, 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The most overhyped — if not overrated — day on this list, but one that clearly can’t be ignored. The ancillary events (i.e. commercials, halftime show) have become their own global attractions, and the football’s pretty captivating from time to time. Toss in some pivotal college hoops matchups earlier in the afternoon, and you’ve got a solid sports day all in all.

5. New Year’s Day

Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson catches a touchdown pass in the Golden Gophers' 31-24 win against Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2020. Johnson would be drafted by the Bucs a few months later.
Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson catches a touchdown pass in the Golden Gophers' 31-24 win against Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2020. Johnson would be drafted by the Bucs a few months later. [ KYLE OKITA | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

For decades now, New Year’s Eve revelers have soothed their savage headaches with hours of sofa confinement while one bowl game after another is staged. While the four-team College Football Playoff (staged on a separate day) has thinned out the traditional New Year’s Day slate, it’s still pretty robust. In 2023, New Year’s falls on Sunday, giving the NFL the viewership monopoly while the Rose, Cotton, Citrus and ReliaQuest (formerly Outback) bowl games move to Jan. 2.

4. Thanksgiving Day

Lions coach Dan Campbell will lead his team against the Bills in the early Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 24 in Detroit.
Lions coach Dan Campbell will lead his team against the Bills in the early Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 24 in Detroit. [ MIKE MULHOLLAND | mlive.com ]

Though our society remains gastronomically polarized by the stuffing/dressing and yams/sweet potatoes arguments, the delectable spread of pro and college football annually set out on this day remains blissfully bipartisan in its entertainment value. This year, we get three NFL games (including the Giants at Dallas) and, of course, the Egg Bowl (Mississippi State-Ole Miss) in the evening. Pass the pecan pie, and the remote.

3. First Thursday of March Madness

Western Kentucky senior guard Ty Rogers celebrates his winning 3-pointer in overtime that gave the No. 12-seeded Hilltoppers a 101-99 win against No. 5 Drake in the opening round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum (now Amalie Arena).
Western Kentucky senior guard Ty Rogers celebrates his winning 3-pointer in overtime that gave the No. 12-seeded Hilltoppers a 101-99 win against No. 5 Drake in the opening round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum (now Amalie Arena).

Ahh, that glorious spring day when every bracket still brims with promise and millions scurry to locate truTV on their respective cable package. Generally ignored by the masses until after the Super Bowl, college hoops crashes the nation’s consciousness on Selection Sunday and remains there for three riveting weekends. Arguably no day of the year tests the efficiency of your living-room remote better than the opening Thursday, when action tips off at noon on various channels and goes until after midnight.

2. Saturday, Thanksgiving weekend

Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith (6) catches a pass as Auburn linebacker Chandler Wooten (31) tries to tackle him during the second half of the Tigers' 48-45 victory on Nov. 30, 2019. The Alabama-Auburn game, universally known as the "Iron Bowl," is among several prominent college rivalry games staged the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend.
Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith (6) catches a pass as Auburn linebacker Chandler Wooten (31) tries to tackle him during the second half of the Tigers' 48-45 victory on Nov. 30, 2019. The Alabama-Auburn game, universally known as the "Iron Bowl," is among several prominent college rivalry games staged the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]

College football fans annually gorge themselves in courses on this weekend, the last of the conventional regular season. Thursday night’s appetizer (Egg Bowl) is followed by a hefty serving of action on Black Friday (which this year includes Baylor-Texas, North Carolina-N.C. State and Florida-FSU), then capped Saturday by a smorgasbord of rivalries, many with indelible monikers. Ohio State-Michigan annually kicks off a day which this year also features the Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn), the Civil War (Oregon-Oregon State) and the War on I-4 (UCF-USF). Now that’s animosity from coast to coast.

1. First full Saturday of college football

Florida State players run onto the field just prior to their game against Alabama in the teams' 2017 neutral-site season opener in Atlanta. The top-ranked Crimson Tide won, 24-7.
Florida State players run onto the field just prior to their game against Alabama in the teams' 2017 neutral-site season opener in Atlanta. The top-ranked Crimson Tide won, 24-7. [ Times (2017) ]

Forget the mostly-feeble assortment of Week Zero games, those metaphorical mozzarella sticks that precede the main entree. We’re talking “College GameDay” in the morning, followed by 14 frenetic hours of action. For the nation’s second-biggest sport (behind the NFL), no day is more anticipated than this one. Oh sure, Week 1 still has a gluttony of Power Five-versus-patsy matchups, but as the college playoff has evolved and the quality-win component has grown more critical, the slate has grown more alluring each year. Consider the first full Saturday of 2022: Notre Dame-Ohio State. Oregon-Georgia. Utah-Florida. If FSU and LSU were playing Saturday night instead of Sunday, this day would get even grander.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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