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All-Star wars: the fandom menace

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In the week before the Super Bowl, the NFL launched its improved Pro Bowl format with teams being drafted by NFL legends, Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice. However, as much as the NFL tries to improve the Pro Bowl, the truth is that most fans see the event as a pitiful exhibition game that players don’t care about. Fans want to see the best players in the world compete at their highest level, and in a sport where injuries are abundant, the reality is that a competitive Pro Bowl is simply a pipe dream.

It seems that of the four major North American sports, only the NHL has figured out how to throw an entertaining All-Star weekend.  So how can the three other professional leagues improve their uninspired displays?

In 2003, Major League Baseball (MLB) made the All-Star game worth playing for when it decided to award the winning conference home-field advantage in the World Series. While the MLB got that one right, the decision also precluded other creative ideas for improving their All-Star weekend. For example, despite popular demand, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander did not appear in the 2013 home run derby. Although nobody expected that Verlander would suddenly start launching moonshots, the MLB can rest assured that baseball fans would tune in to see the former CY Young winner take a few swings of the bat.

The NBA struggles with almost the exact opposite issue: nobody wants to participate in their supposed marquee event. For years now, the slam-dunk competition has been filled with a handful of no-name players. Fans want to see LeBron James soaring through the air—not afterthoughts such as former New York Knick James White. There are two easy fixes for this: new NBA commissioner Adam Silver can try to remind these players that they are both athletes and entertainers, or he can incentivize winners by giving a sum of money to the charity of the winner’s choice. You can be assured that James or any other superstar would sign up for the dunk contest if his reputation were on the line. The struggle now is for Silver to create a system that convinces stars to prove their worth against one another in this setting.

The dunk contest is just the beginning of the NBA All-Star weekend’s flaws. Most of the other events are painstakingly boring. How about a free throw competition where the only prerequisite is to have previously received the Hack-a-Shaq treatment? Think about the entertainment value of watching DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, and Dwight Howard struggle to make just half their shots. On a more serious note, how about adding a one-on-one tournament? I would certainly want to see LeBron James go head-to-head with Kevin Durant in a first-to-11-points contest.

With regards to the specific players playing in the big game: this is a choice that should not be left to uneducated fans. The league needs to let the coaches vote for the All-Stars, as fans are more prone to vote for big names and star power rather than rewarding those who are currently having quality seasons. When Kobe Bryant is named a starter during a season in which he has only played six games, it becomes apparent that the system is flawed.

Returning to the NFL, how can a sport where someone gets hit on almost every play have an All-Star game where every player is afraid to get injured? Easy; remove the hitting. Athletes don’t play hard because they don’t want to get injured. However, if you prevent the likelihood of injury, intensity will be ramped up. Turning the Pro Bowl into flag football might fundamentally change the game but it ensures that fans get to see the league’s best players play with some vigour. Another welcome addition would be a return to the skills competition the NFL had featured until 2007. In its first go-around the event had little marketing, but it would be an interesting way to pit the best players in the “No Fun League” against each other in order to make their all-star weekend more, well, fun.

While designing these events, the “Big Four” leagues face a precarious balance between intensity and entertainment. With a little creativity and effort, however, they can achieve a product that both fans and players will be proud of.