Many years ago, an elderly Abraham Simpson wrote to the president complaining about the existence of too many states. We share Mr. Simpon’s concern, only our gripe is with All-Star games in professional sports. "Please eliminate three."
This won’t happen, of course. All-Star games bring in money, which is really all that matters, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons. All-Star breaks are crucial for players, All-Star appearances provide contractual bonuses for players as well as ego boosts and bragging rights. The games and their festivities draw tens of thousands of eager fans and millions of television viewers no matter how broken those games might be. The NBA All-Star Game did a fine rating on Sunday but, if you watched, it was the same way you’ll watch The Grammy’s tonight — out of boredom, obligation or the mere desire to see stars.
The Pro Bowl, defying all logic and reason, had eight million viewers (on cable!) but only Russell Wilson seemed to care. (Maybe because he’d come across some pro-Pro Bowl tidbits while searching for Valentine’s Day gift ideas for Ciara.)
I’m not going to act like I know whether the NHL had its All-Star game yet, but I assume it did and that fans enjoyed it and casual observers, such as yours truly, had no idea if it happened.
And the problems with the MLB All-Star Game have existed ever since interleague play started and hit an ongoing crescendo after Bud Selig overreacted to the inevitable extra-inning debacle that finally took place in 2002.
With problems afflicting the biggest exhibitions in the four major American sports, we have some suggestions, nay demands (OK, probably suggestions), on how to make each All-Star game better.
Criticisms of the Pro Bowl have all the subtlety of cannonballing into a pool and all the originality too. Where to begin?
1.Pro Bowl is a stupid name. The name actually predates Super Bowl, meaning the NFL took its cue from college in naming its big games "bowls," which is lame enough. But what does Pro Bowl mean? It’s a bowl for pros? Is it open to all pros? Think about it: Rose Bowl. The bowl of roses. Super Bowl. The bowl that’s super. Sugar Bowl. The 1990s Dallas Cowboys probably should have played in more of those. But Pro Bowl? It has no cachet. Theoretically, anyone should make the Pro Bowl and realistically almost everybody does.
2.It’s a meaningless honor. Making the Pro Bowl is the football equivalent of getting pre-approved for a platinum or black card. There’s at least some positive criteria involved, but it’s not exactly a crowning achievement to be selected. Injuries and apathy lead to dozens of players withdrawing because of "injury" or because they’re playing in the Super Bowl, which generally features a bunch of players who’ve earned the "honor" of being nominated because, you know, the teams are good.
This year, 11 NFL quarterbacks were named Pro Bowlers. ELEVEN! If you were the starting QB of an NFL team, you had a 33 percent chance of making this so-called prestigious event.
3.No one watches. I do this for a living and it’s never occurred to me to watch the Pro Bowl, especially now that it’s slipped into Super Bowl week. I don’t know a single person who watched the Pro Bowl and I doubt you do either. But eight million people watched, which means we’re friends with liars. Rockwell foresaw this. Pro Bowl, somebody’s watching you (only they’re too ashamed to admit it).
4.What can be done? This is hardly a novel idea, but it’s a simple one: Get rid of it. If you want to honor players, name the team for posterity, thus giving players a nice resume builder but not watering it down so much that you’re forced to use the phrase "2016 Pro Bowl quarterback Jameis Winston." And then, have some fun, a la the NBA’s All-Star Saturday.
A. NFL’s Fastest Man Competition
Remember these awesome competitions from back in the ’80s, inevitably won by a Raiders wide receiver (who was inevitably a former All-American or Olympic sprinter) or Darrell Green? It was fun. It was quick. It was easy to televise and easier to understand. NFL players are always barking about how they’re the fastest. Attach a big purse and you know guys would be coming out of the woodwork for bragging rights. (Heck, they’d do it without the big purse. You don’t think Chris Johnson wants to show Ted Ginn Jr. he’s faster? Oh, and it has to be a 60, like in the old days. I don’t know why the 40 has fascinated NFL fans since the combine became a spectator sport. It’s a fine race when you’re running against no one, but in a head-to-head competition, a 40 is worthless. It’s all start and gives little room for movement.)
But throwing money around shouldn’t be a problem. ESPN pays $1.9 billion dollars annually to air one game per week and a single wild-card game, among billions in other television and endorsement deals. The NFL could offer Wolf of Wall Street duffel bags if it wanted. Do it with each of these. The cash plus pride would guarantee turnout.
B. The Quarterback Challenge
These weren’t as popular as the Fastest Man competitions yet they were great in their own way. Quarterbacks would throw at moving targets of varying distances. There’d be events putting them on the run. You could have a skeet-shooting competition, only with footballs. There’d be a longest-throw competition and a fastest throw competition. Older guys could come, too, because Brett Favre threw a missile and loved to have fun out there. Heck, set up a William Tell-like accuracy challenge with Roger Goodell and/or Jerry Jones serving as the guy with the apple on his head. You know you’d watch.
C. Obstacle courses
My nephews love the American Ninja Challenge like kids of my day used to love the NFL. So set up a ANC-type course (I have no idea whether that’s a used acronym), only without some of the stations that could be named "Career-Ruining ACL Tear Jump" and see the quickest, most athletic players in the game compete. It’d be like American Gladiators without the gladiators. But if you wanted to put Von Miller in there to make it harder for Patrick (or Adrian) Peterson to climb the Eliminator, I’m not complaining.
Hold it on the Sunday before the Super Bowl, sometime in the late afternoon (5 p.m. ET-ish).
Every year people are all "the dunk contest is the worst — they should have ended it with Vince Carter in 2000." And then something enjoyable happens — like Zach LaVine on Saturday — and the general attitude turns to "hey, that was pretty good!" The dunk contest is rewarded by its low expectations. Keep it as is. People like dunks. And people like deep shooting, so keep the 3-point contest.
Get rid of the Skills Challenge and replace it with an Around The World game with Steph Curry and someone else, with the numbers starting at the three-point line and progressively moving back until they’re like 75-feet away.
As for the game, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing good about it either. Replace it with a three-on-three tournament, with the top vote-getters doing a schoolyard pick with the rest of the named All-Stars. Play a short enough game to keep it close and compelling and put each round in between the other challenges so players don’t get gassed.
Same thing: three-on-three. The whole time, kind of like what the NHL tried this year but in game form, not tournament. Three periods of whatever amount of minutes keeps Alex Ovechkin from collapsing due to exhaustion. Have the same rules that apply in overtime, just drawn out longer. Make the rosters a little bigger for the aforementioned exhaustion reasons and voila. Because you know what rules? Three-on-three hockey. You know what draws the attention of the non-hockey fan? Three-on-three hockey.
You could argue, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue back, that these All-Star games should service the true fans — the ones who watch all 82 games and buy season tickets and yada, yada, yada. Or you could argue, as I would, that you want to bring in as many casual viewers as possible and having a novel, frenetic approach is the best way to do that for a league that could use some more attention. Leave the real hockey to the regular season and the playoffs. You can afford to be silly in an All-Star game.
This is going to invalidate everything I’ve said before because I realize I’m in the distinct minority on this one, but I like that the All-Star Game decides home-field advantage. I realize the plethora of arguments against this, but having the ASG result determine things is far better than the old way of just alternating between AL and NL. Yeah, it used to be alternating! OK, you say, then just make it like every other sport and have the team with the best regular-season record get home field. That’s imperfect, too! Getting 90 wins in the NL East isn’t the same as getting 90 in the AL East. (For last year, at least.)
Everything is going to have flaws, so why not make the game count? But abridge the rules and let players subbed out come back in the game. Never make the pitchers hit, even in an NL park. And after, say, 10 innings, come up with a cool tiebreaker, like having Bryce Harper and Mike Trout sprint around the bases and then judging them based on time and the majesty of their head-flip, helmet-drop as they round second.
It’s not 1986. People aren’t watching these things just because they’re on. Use a little imagination and make America great again.