Why it’s time to give up the ghost and let All-Star Games be a thing of the past.
@BreakTheHuddle (e-mail: BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com)
On Super Bowl Sunday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gave an interview in which he stated the NFL might do away with the Pro Bowl. It would be an overstatement to say that this sent any shock waves through the football landscape – anyone who saw the glorified flag football game played on January 29th would agree that something certainly needs to change. But the commissioner of the sport stating that the NFL would consider “eliminating the game if that’s the kind of quality game we’re going to provide” was still quite striking.
While the NFL experiences the most dramatic drop-off in the quality of play between its regular season product and its All-Star game (called the Pro Bowl), valid criticisms exist of the All-Star games in all of the major sports. Here are the reasons why it’s time to put them out to pasture all together – no more tweaking, no more gimmicks, just pull the plug and let them die.
The games themselves mean nothing (in the NFL, NBA and NHL) and the one that does mean something is an ill-conceived fraud (MLB).
Legendary Cincinnati Reds outfielder Pete Rose steamrolled Oakland A’s catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game, breaking Fosse’s leg and ending his season. To the modern sports fan (say, anyone under the age of the 30) the notion of running a guy over in baseball’s All-Star game is as antiquated as 50 cent tickets and the spitball. Gone are the days when players carried personal rivalries and league pride into All-Star games. Now, each league seems more like a fraternity, where opposing players hug before games, have the same agents and hang out together in the offseason.
And while some people bemoan those particular examples of modern athletes getting “soft”, keeping All-Star games going won’t do anything to stem the tide. The reality is, the sports landscape has changed in too many ways to ever return to the ferocity of yesteryear. Players have more money, more handlers and more of a social awareness than ever before. It’s clear that some guys still view an All-Star invitation as an honor, but for many, it means no vacation in the middle of a hectic season and a weekend of participating in the charade. Much of the All-Star experience in the four major sports is going through the motions rather than aggressive play. The players know it, owners know it, and most importantly, the fans know it – so why keep it up?
At least the NFL, NHL and NBA know what their game is and treat it as such. Since the 2002 game ended in a tie (embarrassing Bud Selig in his adopted home city of Milwaukee), Major League Baseball instituted a rule declaring that the league winning the All-Star game gets home field advantage in the World Series. There is a myriad of problems with this line of thinking – yes, the games are more competitive, but the expanded rosters added to help ensure players are eternally available off the bench cheapen the honor of being an All-Star. Yes, the game has some consequence – but in a tie game in the 9th inning, the All-Star starters are long gone, meaning the likes of David Robertson and Andrew McCutchen will decide the outcome of the game. This system meant the Wild Card Cardinals got to host the West Division Champion Rangers in the World Series. (The Rangers had the third best record in baseball in 2011.) In what universe does this make sense? Teams play 162 grueling, seemingly endless games to determine the best records – which all gets thrown out the window because Prince Fielder hit a clutch home run in a July exhibition.
It’s in the best interests of each sports franchise for All-Star games to die.
In three of the major sports (MLB, NBA and NHL) the All-Star game occurs in the middle of the season. Despite the fact that players generally stick to the unspoken gentlemen’s agreement to take it easy on one another in these games, the risk of injury is very much a reality. There were about three seconds of real defense played in last Sunday’s NBA All-Star game, and what happened? Dwayne Wade gave Kobe Bryant a concussion and a broken nose. Imagine this had been a serious concussion, or that someone went up for a fast-break dunk and landed awkwardly, spraining an ankle or breaking a leg?
Franchises work very hard to acquire and develop top players, and have to pay them handsomely to keep them in their cities. It would be a shame if a team on the cusp of a playoff berth lost a key player to injury playing in a meaningless exhibition. Even in the NFL, where the game happens after the season is over, players are at risk of long term injury. Rashard Mendenhall, for instance, will miss the entire 2012 season after injuring himself in a Steeler playoff game on a play in which he was barely touched – imagine this had been the Pro Bowl!
It’s hard for me to believe that the governing entities of each sports league really have the clout to keep the All-Star games going despite the fact that common sense (and individual interest) dictates they ought to go away. If the franchises in each sport got together on the issue and pressured their commissioners, it could be a possibility. Perhaps it would take a cataclysmic injury for such a thing to happen – imagine if Packers’ safety Nick Collins, whose career was likely ended by a neck injury during the regular season, had been hurt in the Pro Bowl. The Packers would be out a perennial All-Pro , and for what? Hopefully, the leagues take preemptive action to protect their assets rather than wait to react to a terrible injury.
All of the All-Star games are watched, but it’s not like any of them are ratings bonanzas.
What the All-Star games seem to represent to each league is a chance to celebrate the sport by getting all of its top players in one place. It’s a way for each league to drum up corporate sponsorships and buzz for the league. But the games themselves don’t draw high ratings – sure, the NBA All-Star game was the top viewed cable program the week it ran, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB can’t afford to do without the small revenues they receive from TV dollars and local advertising dollars from the All-Star games.
If you want an evening to celebrate the sport – why not make your awards banquet a more marquee event, a la the Grammys or the Oscars (you know, minus all the annoying stuff). Get a half-decent comedian to host, get all the stars together – people who are interested in the sport will definitely tune in, and be grateful they don’t have to see a bastardized version of their sport paraded in front of them.
More importantly, it ought to be done at the end of each sports season – maybe right before the title game or series starts (much like the NFL has done with its awards ceremony, which was hosted by Alec Baldwin, broadcast on cable and still managed to generate significant buzz). It makes more sense to recognize and honor All-Stars for a full season of production rather than having a good first half. The players would all appreciate the chance to rest and relax in the middle of a hectic (NBA, MLB or NHL) season, or to rest their bodies following another season of punishing their bodies (NFL).
Long story short, it’s time to pull the plugs.
Even die-hard sports fans (such as myself) have a limited appetite for their favorite sports. But the All-Star games are just empty calories. Cut them out of our diet, and we won’t really miss them, and all the parties involved (minus a few advertisers and cable networks) will be grateful. Now’s the time – the players treat it as a charade, and the fans can see right through it. Let it slip into the past. We’ll all be better off for it.