The NHL, NBA and NFL each have their All-Star Weekends in January and February, sparking the annual debate about whether these games are worth the watch. Sports fans wax poetic about the all-star games of eras past, but for most of my memory they have been low-effort events with disinterested players.
In the NHL, all-star game problems start with attendance. The league’s biggest stars have skipped the game in recent years, including Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. For skipping the game, players must serve a one-game suspension, but this hardly seems to be an effective deterrent. These players miss the games primarily to rest up for the playoffs and to take extra rehabilitation time for nagging injuries. An extra day gained from a suspension might be welcome to accomplish these goals. Unfortunately, these reasons for skipping are related to age and chances of making the playoffs, common attributes of all-stars.
The players who actually make it to the game have little incentive to try their best. The NHL All-Star games fall about 50 games into the season, when the wear and tear of the sport begins to set in for the players. In 2016, the NHL decided to change the format of the all-star game from the traditional 5-on-5 to 3-on-3 to encourage more goal scoring. Although goalies tend to look incompetent under these conditions, the NHL found a way to add some excitement.
The NHL is not the only league plagued by recent lackluster all-star games. The NBA game has generated numerous iconic moments in years past, including the 2003 All-Star Game in which Michael Jordan was on the cusp of winning All-Star MVP in the final all-star appearance of his career. Jordan scored on a fadeaway jump shot with five seconds remaining in the game, putting the East up by two points. Kobe Bryant answered with five points to send the game into two overtime periods where the West ultimately prevailed.
This captivating moment only happened because the all-star game was a high-effort endeavor that the players were proud to win. Today, there seems to be an unspoken agreement that neither team will play defense to allow unearned, albeit spectacular, dunks to be traded until time expires. Like in the NHL, it is an exhibition more than a game.
The NFL is by far the most lucrative league of the major North American leagues measured in attendance and television ratings, but its Pro Bowl is notoriously ignored for its total lack of stakes and effort. At least in basketball and hockey, the all-star games forego competitiveness for a dazzling display of offensive skill. Lack of effort in football simply creates amateur-level play. This year, the completion percentage of passing in the Pro Bowl was abysmal; the teams traded interceptions, and there was, of course, no defensive or special teams scoring. Again, football resembles hockey as players are not eager to risk bodily injury without substantial incentives in a sport defined by physicality.
The aforementioned leagues should take some inspiration from the most successful all-star display in sports — MLB’s All-Star festivities. While 8.23 million watched the Pro Bowl, the MLB reports that a combined 24 million watched the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game in 2019. Most importantly, there were actual displays of effort in the game. This year, there were double plays, bases stolen, no errors, even the first bunt by a non-pitcher in the history of the all-star game — all indicative of interested participation and strategic play from the participants.
Baseball is supposed to be a dying sport, so the MLB has clearly unlocked some secrets of the All-Star Weekend. First, baseball benefits from its lack of physicality; players may put in some effort without risking an injury that may jeopardize current or future seasons. Even the skills competition this year saw broken records, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. broke the all-time record of home runs in a single round and in the entire Derby, which indicates that more than just self-preservation is on the players’ minds. Other leagues should consider changing the timing of their all-star games, so they are at a less critical juncture in the season but still ensure the stakes of playing are high.
Second, the MLB has not been shy with its incentives. The winner of the Home Run Derby wins $1 million, whereas the winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest receives a comparatively paltry $105,000. Furthermore, the MLB offered the winning league of its all-star game home-field advantage during the World Series up to the 2016 season after a 2002 All-Star Game that was severely lacking in effort. Perhaps this policy overvalued the all-star game, but it was surely effective.
Third, the players that are the most skilled in the league want to be there. In fact, for this year’s game in Cleveland, the state of Ohio taxed the players who participated, some paid more in taxes — calculated on the basis of the total salary of the players — than they received for participating. Some players paid to participate in the all-star game. Effective marketing, incentives and treatment by the respective leagues all contribute to the desirability of participating.
Overall, players do not become all-stars because of their skill alone. Rather, a commitment to winning, competitiveness and passion make skilled players great. The all-star games do these players a disservice by failing to display these attributes among the best of the best.