Some-stars game

Posted on February 13, 2010


I can’t remember the last time I watched the NFL’s all-star game, which is mysteriously called the “Pro Bowl.” My dad watches it every year. But he’s an NFL junkie, and coming a week after the Super Bowl, it was always his only available hit of football methadone to ease him into a long winter, spring, and early summer of football jonesin’. But this year the Pro Bowl precedes the Super Bowl, so even my dad may have given it a pass if something else came up.

It’s no secret that the Pro Bowl is the least interesting of the all-star games in the four major North American professional sports. (I reveal my age by sticking to the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL as the Big Four. I don’t expect to have much to say about other North American contenders like NASCAR, MMA, MLS, Poker, or X-Games.)

So what makes a sport’s all-star game more likely to be interesting? Here are 7 factors that will affect how fun it will be for a true fan of a sport to watch its all-star game.

The game will be interesting when…

(1) …. it is in a sport where a good performance for a team is largely a function of how well each of the individual players plays his discrete role.

(2) … it is in a sport where team plays or strategies that involve coordination among the individual players are fairly similar from team to team. (There are few relevant differences, e.g. in the way infielders in baseball will turn a 6-4-3 double-play, but vast differences in the way football defenses blitz.)

(3) … the all-star game comes with a break in the middle of a long season. The break is appreciated by players (especially those not selected to the teams); and for the fans it marks a transition to the part of the season that really matters. This break can also be filled with various “skills” competitions between the players in the days before the all-star game.

(4) … there is a natural, enduring rivalry between the two perennial sides in the all-star game (e.g. NFC v AFC, NL v AL, East v West), and the players and the fans take some pride in supporting one side or the other.

(5) … the fans of the sport are likely to be amused by “hot-dogging” or fancy plays involving one or more players — especially hot-dogging that is not common (because ineffective) in normal competitive play. Similarly, because flashy offensive stars often amass the kinds of stats that make them more likely to be selected to all-star teams, and because defense is often discouraged by rules or conventions in these exhibition games to prevent injuries, scoring often runs wild in all-star games. So in sports where fans are thrilled by wide-open offense, these games will be more successful.

(6) … the big stars in the league are also outsized celebrities; so just having them all gathered in one place for a few days will create a buzz in the media and among what used to be called the “jet set,” who will want to be there just to be tanned by the stars’ auras.

(7) And finally, the game is likely to be most interesting for sports in which playing hard does not involve significant risk of injury; since in these sports, neither the players not the owners will want hard play.

Well, if these factors play a role in making an all-star game meaningful for fans, it’s no wonder the Pro Bowl is a guaranteed dud. It is widely recognized that the final condition — involving the threat of injury if players played hard — is a big problem for a football all-star game no matter when in the season you play it. But football suffers with respect to all the other conditions for all-star-game success as well; perhaps most interestingly, because of conditions (1) and (2). Football is a true team sport. It is about how players are able to coordinate their skills and effort (via skilled management…. I mean, coaching). And the strategies of coordination vary significantly from one team to the next. They play different “systems.” These three factors combined make an interesting Pro Bowl game inconceivable. And unfortunately the other four factors for all-star-game success aren’t really available in the case of football either (surely the rivalry between the AFC and NFC ain’t what it used to be); so the league has to accept that this game is never going to be a big draw. It hardly matters that many of the biggest stars, including now all the stars from the two best teams, refuse to play.

But the NFL and football fans generally can take heart in the fact that the failure to satisfy the first two criteria is a good thing, all in all. They are what make football the quintessential American team sport. If you find the mastery of collective action problems through hard work and voluntary cooperation to be one of the most exciting achievements of modern societies — and are not too put off by occasional acts of brutal violence — you should find football to be an intrinsically satisfying sport.

Note: these criteria also help explain why the baseball all-star game is generally so much more fun as a spectacle. Baseball would rank first among the four major sports on at least five of the above criteria. (E.g. team success is largely a function of individual success, and the rivalry between the NL and AL still means something — even if the game didn’t now decide home-field advantage in the World Series.) The NBA all-star game is something of an event because it does pretty well on all the criteria, and better than the other sports on hot-dogging and star-power buzz. One caveat: it is probably not true that basketball satisfies criteria (1) and (2), but most fans and talking heads sure talk as if it does. (See the contrarian article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine article on Shane Battier.)

Hockey, like football, is not a contact sport, as Allen Barra reminds us, but a collision sport. So (7) presents a big problem for its midseason all-star game. They try to solve this problem by basically playing a different sport for the all-star game: one with little physical contact or defense. That is, they play by international women’s hockey rules. But hockey’s all-star game does mark a significant break in a long season, allows for some skills competitions and hot-dogging; so by and large it is appreciated and watched by the fans. For at least a couple of years, after the life-saving influx of players from Europe and former East Bloc in the early 1990s, the NHL even experimented with a North America v the Rest of the World contest. This tried to rouse passions through political and cultural identities rather than loyalties to leagues and conferences. But the melting pot eventually worked as well in the frozen arena as it has in most other places in North American history. As the players’ national identities became less exotic to fans, and their styles of play more similar, the league reverted back to the prosaic East-West format.

The Olympics provide hockey and basketball with an opportunity for a genuine all-star competition that really means something to both players and fans. I may be an Olympics grinch, but I am definitely looking forward to the hockey. It’s the Original Six on steroids. Except, hopefully, without actual steroids.

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