SUNDAY'S NBA All-Star Game is the putative climax of All Star weekend, but most everyone will have climaxed by then and the game will be, as usual, an afterthought. They're holding this thing, after all, in Las Vegas. Even those all-star sojourners who stick to the official schedule will have worn down sometime amid the EA NBA Street Homecourt Launch Party and video game tournament, the WNBA's Be Smart-Be Fit-Be Yourself self-improvement session or the doubly sponsored McDonald's NBA All-Star Celebrity Game presented by 2K Sports. (Full disclosure: SI is an advertiser on the TNT broadcast of Saturday night's All-Star festivities.)
In other all-star news, the AFC defeated the NFC 31--28 in the annual Pro Bowl Flag Football Game in Honolulu last Saturday—while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who turned down an opportunity to be an injury replacement for the AFC, was finishing up play at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where he was Billy Andrade's partner.
Moving on, there is a persistent rumor that the NHL held an all-star game at American Airlines Center in Dallas last month. About 474,000 households tuned in to the broadcast on Versus, meaning that had ratings improved significantly, they would've qualified as "ghastly." Competing shows that drew larger audiences included—I'm not making this up—HGTV's Design on a Dime, Discovery's Myth Busters, Bravo's Top Chef and the Food Network's Ace of Cakes. TV Land's Andy Griffith Show attracted an 85% larger audience than the game, though, in fairness, it was the episode where Goober's "Grab-bag for Cash" contest goes awry, and that was pretty damn funny.
It's time to face the cold hard reality that all-star games have outlived their usefulness. Baseball's hung in there for quite a while, but in 2002 it was revealed to be something less than a "midseason classic" when managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly huddled with commissioner Bud Selig and decided, "Hey, nothing wrong with a tie. Now let's grab some brew and brats!"
The collective TV rating for the most recent all-star games in the four major sports was 19.1, lower than what baseball alone used to draw in the 1980s. The fans routinely vote in the wrong players—Yao Ming of the Rockets was selected as a Western Conference starter this year even though he has missed almost half of the season due to injury—and sometimes bad things happen to good players. This year Saints quarterback Drew Brees dislocated his left elbow in Honolulu.
And what, really, is the quality of most all-star games? For leveling Buffalo punter Brian Moorman on a fake punt on Saturday, Redskins safety Sean Taylor was by acclamation the winner of this year's Pete Rose Award, named for the man who bowled over Ray Fosse at home plate in the 1970 All-Star Game. In all-star games, see, the villains are those who play too hard.
Still, baseball's July sideshow makes the most passable impersonation of a real contest, mostly because it's difficult to tell who's giving 100% even in a real game. But all-star games in hockey (little checking), football (no blitzing) and basketball (no defense) take on the what-the-hell insouciance of the participants. The comment by Bulls rookie Tyrus Thomas that he was only entering this year's Slam Dunk contest for the paycheck was impolitic but entirely in line with what many players feel about all-star games.
"Nobody wants to play in a Pro Bowl," Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said a couple of years ago, words that should be pasted on every commissioner's office wall. "Everybody wants to be voted in. Everybody wants to be in Hawaii. But nobody wants to play."
Aikman was on to something. In place of all-star games, how about getting everyone together (Hawaii is too far, but Vegas would work) for a four-sport summit? Mid-February is the perfect time—football is over, basketball and hockey need a timeout, baseball is just packing up the bats and balls to head south.
It would be part business, part fun. Get the marketing and media moguls together for meetings. (Maybe, just maybe, the NHL would get some ideas about how to kick the frosting out of Ace of Cakes.) But keep the entertaining elements of the all-star festivities intact. Hold a home run derby and a three-point-shooting contest. Let quarterbacks throw balls through tires, let slap shooters slap shots. If the big names want to participate—and Corporate America will surely throw money at them to do just that—it would be a gas to watch Peyton Manning show Dwyane Wade how to grip it on the laces or Sidney Crosby show Ryan Howard how to skate backward. The crossover potential is enormous.
The point is, nobody has to be there—let Brady play Pebble and let Tyrus Thomas do whatever it is Tyrus Thomas does. It would be an enormous, multisport convention, a happening. And it would be more fruitful than these exhibitions that across the sports landscape have become less and less compelling and, it needn't be said, less and less observed.
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