UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – NFL, NHL, NBA losing All-Star Game battles

What do the National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association have in common?

Their respective All-Star Games have become mockeries of those sports.

All three entities staged their showcases during this same month, which Leap Year has extended to today.

They asked (or expected) fans to watch players deemed the cream of the crop in their respective leagues demonstrate a variety of athletic skills and talents in what was supposed to pass for elite competition reflective of the prowess that merited their selection as all-stars.

But were these exhibitions entertaining spectacles or embarrassing debacles?

I think the latter.

We begin with what the NFL billed as the “Pro Bowl Games” on February 1 and 4.

Highlights of this match of talent from the National and American Conferences included:

  • a contest to see who could hit a golf ball—that’s right, a GOLF BALL—closest to the pin on a par 3 at a local golf course;
  • a tug-of-war;
  • a Madden NFL video game competition; and 
  • a 7-on-7 FLAG football game in place of an actual rendition of what plays out every week of the season.

The AFC, coached by Peyton Manning, won the flag tilt handily, 50-34, but brother Eli’s NFC squad took the overall title, 64-59, on the strength of a 30-9 composite scoring advantage in all the other events.

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Moving on to the NHL, the players whose performances so far this season earned them All-Star status gathered in Toronto the same weekend that NFL standouts were cavorting in Orlando.

This league’s extravaganza featured a skills competition (all hockey-related, at least) and an elimination tournament comprised of four groups playing 3-on-3 games with two 10-minute halves, with a succession of shootouts in case of a tie.

 (The “team” captained by Avs superstar Nathan McKinnon lost in the first round to the “team” led by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.)

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At least the NBA still had its stars play a regulation, four-quarter game two weeks later. But it was hardly representative.

The final score was—this is not a typo—211-186.

Fifteen players scored in double figures, including five who topped 30 points and one who scored 50. (Nikola Jokic had 13 points and a game-high nine assists in 23-plus minutes.)

In 48 minutes of play, THREE FOULS were whistled. (Defense, apparently, is no longer a matter of pride among NBA All-Stars).

Not to be outdone by their football or hockey brethren, Pro Basketball also held Slam Dunk, Skills and Three-Point Shooting competitions—and a game between teams of celebrities. coached by Broncos Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe and TV personality Stephen A. Smith. 

And, to add flair, two-time MVP Award-winner Steph Curry and decorated Women’s NBA star Sabrina Ionescu squared off in a separate three-point shooting contest.

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For decades, the game itself was enough, in every sport. All-stars wanted to prove who was better. If anything, they played harder in all-star exhibitions.

But now, Major League Baseball’s Midsummer Classic is the only one that still resembles its roots.

Three dynamics changed everything.

First, schedules changed as leagues expanded. Everybody plays everybody now, so all-star games no longer afford the one opportunity to see the best face each other.

Second, television has saturated fandom. Thus, all-star events must offer more than just another game. The novelty of “entertainment” supersedes the simple appeal of a meaningless game between top players.

Third, money has become more paramount. Players don’t want to risk an injury that could diminish their earning power when the outcome doesn’t really matter. And TV wants pizzazz if it’s going to shell out megabucks for the prospect of attracting the audience needed to justify big-time ad revenue.

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Here are the crises:

This year’s Pro Bowl Games attracted the smallest audience in NFL All-Star history, with 5.79 million viewers despite being available on four platforms. Ratings fell 9%.

The NBA’s All-Star Weekend drew 5.5 million viewers, ahead of only 2023’s audience for lowest ever.  

The NHL’s 1.4 million viewers were the second-fewest in the past 10 years.

So, what’s the answer? 

If the games can’t match the intensity and competitiveness fans have come to enjoy and expect, they’re not worth having. 

Better to announce the all-star honors and let the recognition speak for itself. Then figure out how to satisfy TV and attract viewers.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 16 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at denny
dressman@comcast.net.