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Kostya Kennedy
February 18, 2002
The trouble with All-Star games—and how to make them better
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February 18, 2002

Stellar Improvement

The trouble with All-Star games—and how to make them better

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In case you missed them—and many of you did—the All-Star showcases for three major sports took place over the past two weeks. Larger events obscured them: The NHL All-Stars faced off on Feb. 2, the day before the Super Bowl; the NFL and NBA exhibitions were last weekend, during the first two days of Olympic competition.

Even in years without conflict, All-Star weekends don't stir sports fans. (The ratings for the 2001 NBA game barely eclipsed that day's coverage of the Buick Invitational golf tournament.) The events' failings are many—too many gimmicks and too heavy a cold, corporate hand are two—but the main shortcoming is that the games betray their implicit promise: that pitting the best players in a sport against one another will yield first-class competition.

Of course you can't expect professionals to risk injury or even to expend much energy in a game that has no bearing on the standings and doesn't count in a player's stats come contract time. We've learned what we can expect: half-hearted and sloppy play. You catch a lot of All-Stars yawning.

This is why the leagues market All-Star events more as celebrity gatherings than as competitive showdowns. The problem with that is that with very few exceptions athletes only become celebrities because of how they perform in high-intensity competition. We don't revere Michael Jordan for his smile during shootarounds.

Here's our modest plea: that the NBA, NFL and NHL do something to add a sense of urgency to All-Star games. And here's our modest proposal: Think Rocky. The NBA should set up a street-ball tournament in which top playground teams from Harlem to Venice Beach compete for a chance to play the All-Stars on national television. The NHL might pluck a worthy team off a pond or bring in the winner of a tournament among elite European teams. The NFL All-Stars could play the reigning CFL champs.

The idea is to bring in hard-scrapping opponents juiced by the prospect of having everything to gain (namely to open scouts' eyes and get a shot at the big time). Suddenly we'd have a game on our hands. When one side is going all-out, the other has no choice but to follow. Ask Apollo Creed.

We don't mind how the leagues dress up their All-Star weekends. Keep your slam-dunk competitions and your fastest-skater races. Keep your luaus. All we're asking is that somewhere in there you give us a game worth watching.