All-Star Skills Competitions Should Always Outshine the Games in NBA, MLB & NFL
The NBA All-Star Game has proven once again to be the best All-Star competition of the major American sports, showcasing the game's biggest stars in a game full of highlight-reel shots and a fourth quarter where the players are actually trying to win the game.
There's pride at the NBA All-Star Game. The game has become incredibly exciting, leaving fans to hope that pride and excitement would carry over to the skills competitions on Saturday night.
The NBA Dunk Contest is an abomination. The Skills Challenge, or whatever the NBA calls dribbling around cones shaped like Jerry West and throwing a few passes into round targets before hitting a layup, is performed at half speed with little energy. The event where the NBA tries to remind us the WNBA exists by teaming up a current player with a female professional and a legend has never worked, yet the NBA deflates all the energy in the building—and on TV—each year by forcing fans to watch that nonsense.
Truth be told, the only event the NBA hasn't really sanitized to unrecognizable proportions is the three-point contest, which, let's face it, is just a bunch of jump shooters hitting shots they should all hit with nobody guarding them.
Still, somehow, the three-point shootout has consistently been the most compelling event of the NBA All-Star skills extravaganza.
I'm not even sure if it's the NBA's fault for ruining its product. The All-Star Game is great again after years of mediocre contests because this generation of players really seems to care about winning. For years the biggest issue with any All-Star competition in the major sports is realizing the players don't care.
So what can the American sports leagues do to make their All-Star events roundly more compelling? Before we attempt to fix the NBA's Saturday night, let's take a look at what the other professional leagues do for their All-Star extravaganzas.
Hockey Does It Well, When Hockey Does It
The NHL All-Star competition has long been one of the best events for both fans watching on TV and those in the arena. The game itself is often close—though a hot goalie on one side of the ice can totally ruin the competitiveness of the contest at any time—but the real marquee event of the NHL All-Star break is the skills competition.
Every hockey fan wants to know who the fastest skater is, who has the hardest shot and who is the most accurate at hitting those little targets in the corners of the net.
The breakaway competition allows players to show a little creativity and gets the goalies more involved, and while the puck handling and "skills challenge relay" contests are relatively boring compared to the other skills, at least the players seem to try hard in each event.
In recent years, the NHL has fallen victim to the same problems that hit the other sports, attempting to freshen up an event that really didn't need much freshening.
In 2012, the events featured far more gimmicks than ever before, including goalies in the speed skating competitions in addition to the All-Stars we really want to see. The NHL, which smartly turned its All-Star game into a big pickup game where captains choose their teams, disappointingly convinced itself that fans want to keep track of which team is winning the Skills Challenge to add continuity to the event.
Other sports, including the NBA, have tried that too, awarding points to East or West based on the result of each competition. Fans don't care about that. Just show us who is the best at each discipline, and don't worry about the clunky gimmicks.
The NHL does a lot of things wrong, but even with the addition of clunky gimmicks, it has done its All-Star Skills competition right. When it has an All-Star Game, thank you very much, lockout.
Home Run Derby Needs Friends
The Home Run Derby has gone from a marquee event for Major League Baseball to a television disaster, with too many rounds, too many pitches being taken and far too many "back, back, back…gone" calls from ESPN's Chris Berman.
MLB fell into the same pit as the NBA and NHL in trying to modernize the contest and make it more fan-friendly, thereby putting in too many gimmicky rules and slowing down the whole production. Last year the Home Run Derby took nine hours to televise. Nine hours! (OK, my math may be off, but it was well over three hours, and trust me, it felt like nine.)
If MLB wanted to cater to the fans, it could think about adding additional events to the Home Run Derby night, cutting the list of Derby participants down and streamlining the event to make a better ballpark and television experience.
Stop giving each player a certain number of "outs" and just give him 10 swings. Sure, that would lessen the number of home runs, but it would keep the event moving and the players fresher, still providing us with enough wow moments that we wouldn't even worry about a guy getting to the finals with just three homers.
The other thing MLB should do is give points for longer home runs. Why not add up the distance of all the home runs and let the players advance with the longest total? If Prince Fielder hits three home runs but each one is over 450 feet, he may advance over, say, Carlos Beltran, who hit more, but shorter, home runs.
It needs to do something, anything, to make the event more palatable.
The first round takes way too long with eight hitters. Then the top four move on to a second round, which somehow takes almost as long. Some years we have to sit through a swing-off before the finals. By that point the fans are really sort of sick of the whole thing and don't so much care who wins.
Home runs are majestic. The Home Run Derby needs help.
It's easy to understand the reason why MLB doesn't have pitching-related skills events at the All-Star Game, but there's no reason why the league hasn't put in fielding and baserunning events to go along with the Derby.
If MLB shortened the Derby, there would be time to see which player is fastest from home to first on a bunt, which player is fastest first to third on a batted ball or who can tag up from third to home without getting called out at the plate.
These baserunning events could coincide with fielding events too, giving us a look at which third baseman is best at fielding a bunt, which middle infielder is best at tracking back on a deep pop-up and throwing a player out at the plate and which outfielder is best at gunning a runner down at third or home.
Hell, why can't MLB pull out the old Tom Emanski playbook, put trashcans at every base and give the outfielders targets to hit for points? A player digging the ball out of the corner and hitting a target at home on one hop is way more exciting than watching an overtired slugger swinging 20 times to hit a few balls out of the park.
The game has evolved from lauding power hitters as the best players in the game to realizing that the other four tools are just as important. Why not celebrate that at the All-Star Game too, MLB?
NFL Continues to Miss the Point of All-Star Celebrations
The Pro Bowl is a joke of an NFL event. The league knows it, but the ratings have been amazing since moving the game off cable and onto network television. Even if the game stinks, people will watch, so the NFL really has no incentive to make the event better for the fans.
I've written about this before, and there's no use in wasting more time lamenting about the Pro Bowl. The players don't care, and clearly, neither does the league. Sure, the league has suggested it may do away with the game, but I truly believe that was just a rumor started in hopes of lighting a spark under the players to play hard in Hawaii.
The players want the game because it means bonus checks, pats on the back and a trip to Hawaii. Why would they say no to that?
Why, however, the NFL has yet to bring back a proper skills competition is anyone's guess. The sport is tailor-made for a made-for-TV skills extravaganza, to take place either before or instead of the Pro Bowl.
Every NFL fan wants to know who the fastest man in the league is. Everyone. Darrell Green used to dominate that event when the NFL still had it, and everyone used to talk about it. This was back in the 1980s, before the Internet and social media, which would only serve to make the event that much more popular. Everyone wants to know who the fastest player is, including the players.
Everyone would love to know who the strongest man in the NFL is, so why not take a few of the World's Strongest Man challenges and let NFL players give them a go? We would all watch this (and probably gamble on it).
Who is the league's most accurate passer? Who has the NFL's strongest arm? These are things we want to know.
Hundreds of thousands of fans tune in to the NFL combine every year to get a glimpse of college players in shorts and t-shirts run the 40-yard dash and test their vertical leap. Why wouldn't we want to watch our established NFL stars do the same?
Hey MLS, Are You Reading This?
Before we get back to the NBA, there's one more sport that should look at all the things the other major sports do right and wrong and steal all the good things for themselves.
MLS has a brilliant All-Star strategy, taking one team of MLS Stars (avoiding the potential watering-down of talent in the All-Star Game by making it more exclusive) and playing against a top club from Europe, showcasing the midseason form of MLS players against the preseason form of a European powerhouse.
The game has become established enough for MLS to go from playing the likes of West Ham or Celtic to playing Manchester United or Chelsea each season. There is no reason MLS can't schedule the top clubs in the world from this point forward.
Still, MLS is missing a huge opportunity to promote its talented stars by having a skills competition. Soccer, of all sports, lends itself to that kind of contest, where players can take target practice for the corners, hit free kicks or host juggling competitions; a HORSE trick shot competition that could get people around the world trying the moves MLS players can do would be amazing.
Truth be told, there's not really the audience for the MLS All-Star Game on TV, so getting another night to fill a stadium and have a live show would be a stretch. Still, more and more networks are covering soccer and buying in to MLS, so it may not be too hard to conduct the skills challenge on the training field with a few thousand fans in attendance and film it to show on tape in advance of the All-Star Game. I don't think anyone cares if the events are live, so long as they're exciting and well contested.
Fixing NBA All-Star Saturday Night (Dunk Contest Edition)
Everyone has an opinion on how to fix NBA All-Star Saturday night, and while many of these opinions differ, we all agree that something needs to be fixed.
To its credit, the NBA tried to add events like a HORSE competition, and it fell flat (thanks in part to getting players who weren't creative at all). Still, there are a few simple ways to fix an event that used to be great.
Tom Ziller of SB Nation suggested seven ways to fix the event, and while Ziller is far more plugged in to the NBA consciousness than I, some of his suggestions exacerbate the NBA's problem with its skills competition rather than try to fix them. As he points out, though, it's really not about the skills anymore.
Ziller suggests better events with the female players or an Old Man HORSE contest because the youngsters don't have the creativity to do anything buzz-worthy. Unless he means Kobe Bryant, I don't see how adding old players helps promote the new brand of the game other than to remind us how much better the NBA's All-Star weekend was when guys like Jordan and Dominique were there.
The rest of Ziller's suggestions, however, were spot on, bemoaning the use of cheesy props and a NINETY-SECOND CLOCK for the dunk contest. Why can't players have one chance at a dunk, then if they miss, one chance to redo that same dunk or try another dunk they can actually do?
That's what the dunk contest used to be, and it was FINE.
Creating a 90-second window for a guy to cut down a net so he can pass the ball from one hand to his other and dunk a ball twice makes for horrible TV. Even if the player completes a dunk after trying for a minute and a half, NOBODY in the building cares.
One dunk, then move on. The best dunks advance to the finals, where the best dunk wins.
While we're still on the dunk contest, the NBA needs to find judges who actually judge the dunks and don't just wait for a dunk to go in so they can put up a Sprite-emblazoned number 10. Some of those dunks were not 50s, judges. Have some historical perspective.
Fixing NBA All-Star Saturday Night (NBA Jam Style)
We've mentioned HORSE a few times, so let's revisit that idea, which was smartly championed for years by the likes of Bill Simmons at ESPN and every good NBA person on the planet. The event can work if the NBA could get their most creative players involved. There is no reason why kids on a schoolyard can come up with more creative shots than NBA stars.
There have to be five players in the NBA who would take pride in a HORSE contest to make it fun for fans and the players involved. I sternly believe this.
Speaking of fun for fans and the players, the All-Star Saturday night has become a fashion show for the game's top stars. It's no wonder none of them want to participate in the contests, as they're too busy reveling in their one chance to sit on the sidelines and cheer on other stars while wearing the craziest shirts in all of sports.
What incentive will get the game's top stars to compete? Money? No, it's not money, not even the million-dollar charitable contribution many league pundits suggest could get the game's best players to participate in the dunk contest.
The only way to get the game's top stars to compete in the NBA All-Star Saturday night is to create events where pride is on the line. HORSE could be one way, but a 2v2 NBA Jam-style contest is the better way to get the game's best stars on the court.
The logistics are simple: Every team picks two players to represent it at the All-Star weekend. Games are scored by one-point intervals to seven or 11, and a team must win by two. Winners advance.
To make the game go faster, the NBA could wheel in baskets at center court, creating two half-court games to play at the same time—playing out an Eastern and Western Conference bracket.
Granted, with 15 teams in each conference, we would be looking at a lot of first-round games, but the NBA could hold the first two rounds on Friday night before the semifinals and finals take place on Saturday night.
Or the NBA could get social media involved. Set up a bracket based on league standings and seed each team, letting fans vote on which tandem they'd rather see advance to the tournament.
In the West, the voting would get interesting, as this year would have created a second-round tilt between the Thunder and Lakers. Social media would explode with debate.
After the fans vote down to the final eight teams, those players face off during All-Star Saturday night in their quarterfinals, semifinals and finals games to see which two-man team is the best in the league.
The best moment of the actual NBA All-Star Game was Kobe's lockdown defense on LeBron, so why not create a manufactured event that guarantees that for us? Then mic up the players so everyone in the gym can hear them (keep it clean, fellas), and you have an amazing event that would take over All-Star weekend.
You Have Amazing Skills. Please Showcase Them Better.
This may not save the entire All-Star Saturday night, but it's a good way to get top stars involved without forcing them to compete in the dunk contest, and it sure as hell would be more interesting than watching a couple of mid-level point guards dribble and pass at half speed or a retired superstar try to hit a half-court shot while high-fiving a WNBA player.
It's that, or try the three-point contest blindfolded. That might work.
Again, none of this is new (except maybe the blindfolded three point contest), and you have to applaud the NBA for habitually trying to fix the product in lieu of getting the game's best stars to participate. The fact remains the product isn't as good as it was, and if it can't force the top stars to compete in the dunk contest, the NBA needs to make events the top stars can't refuse. Would LeBron and Wade survive the backlash of putting Mike Miller and Shane Battier in the 2v2 Challenge? No, they would have to compete.
An All-Star Game can be a public relations win for any league. It's a shame that most leagues are still missing a golden promotional opportunity with their skills competitions.