The recent release of the National Football League’s Pro Bowl rosters makes two things abundantly clear. The first is that all-star games are completely contrived and meaningless. The second is that the rosters for the exhibitions put on by the four major American sports leagues do not necessarily consist of the best players.
The original all-star game in the United States, Major League Baseball’s event at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1933, wasn’t initially a bad idea as fans were treated to an exhibition between players who never played against each other unless their respective teams crossed paths in the World Series. Just 18 players per side participated in the contest and it was truly a match-up of the best the American and National leagues had to offer.
It has devolved into something much, much different.
For a long while, winning actually mattered to the players on both sides. Players who took part during the 1970s took great pride in winning. Pete Rose actually ran over Ray Fosse to score the winning run in 1970.
At some point during the 1980s, that all changed, spiraling downward to the low point in 2002 when the game ended in a tie after both teams ran out of pitchers because the managers ran a new arm out to the mound for every batter, it seemed, because they were afraid to be blamed for an injury or tired arm to a pitcher involved in a pennant race. Fans were outraged (the reason is beyond me as no one really cares who wins in the first place).
Former commissioner Bud Selig tried to change perception in regards to MLB’s event after that game in 2002. Starting in 2003, the winner of the game secured the home-field advantage for its league’s representative in the World Series. Really. The winner of a meaningless exhibition game determines whether a team gets an advantage in the pursuit of its sport’s championship trophy.
That said, the players still don’t really care who wins and neither do the fans. The television ratings might say differently, but that can easily be reasoned away with the argument the game is literally the only major sporting event being televised on the night it’s played.
Saying the MLB event is an All-Star game is a bit misleading. It’s more of a popularity contest crossed with the undertones of a political party nomination convention.
The original game had two rosters of 18 players. Currently, a grand total of 68 players – 34 per side –populate the rosters of each team. Each team will have 21 position players and 13 pitchers.
American League fans elect nine starters (including the designated hitter) and National League fans select eight starters. The NL manager selects the starting DH. Players coaches and managers select eight pitchers and eight position players for each league with a vote. The AL and NL managers are then responsible for selecting eight more players for their teams with a fan vote electing the final player for each roster.
By rule, every team in the league has to have at least one player on its league’s team.
There are a number of problems with the selection process. It begins with each team having a player in the game. In many years, at least a quarter of the league’s teams do not boast a player worthy of selection.
The above problem leads to another issue. Too many players are involved in the game.
There are a lot of great players in the league. There are not 68 players worthy of being labeled a star in any given season. Having 34 players per side makes sense if the managers were leading a team playing a full season. However, for one nine-inning game, it is entirely too many guys. Even 18 per side is a bit too many.
Another issue is the managers of the two teams tend to select their own players over other more deserving players. The rule that players, coaches and manager select a portion of the rosters was put in purposely to curb this issue after Joe Torre became notorious for this exact behavior as manager of the New York Yankees.
The selection processes for the NFL, NBA, and NHL are considerably less convoluted.
The NFL might actually use the best process for selecting players. A total of 86 players are selected through a voting process in which the fans, players and coaches each get an equal footing in the voting. Each faction counts for a third of the vote.
That doesn’t mean the process is flawless. The simple fact that two offensive linemen from the Cleveland Browns were selected for the Pro Bowl is a sign of that. You want evidence? The Browns rank 24th in total offensive yards, 17th in passing yards, 18th in rushing yards and have allowed the third-most sacks in the league. Those numbers do not warrant the selections of even a single member from the unit as among the best in the NFL. The failure of the offensive line is a big reason the team is 3-12 heading into the final game of the season.
The game itself, however, should never get played as it happens the week before the Super Bowl, meaning the best players from the best team in each conference aren’t able to participate.
Fans long ago quit caring about the contest as the Pro Bowl routinely draws lower television ratings than regular season games. Yes, you read that correctly. Regular-season games draw a better television rating than a game that includes the league’s 86 best players.
The fans picked up on the fact that the teams and players are too afraid of injury to fully give their best long ago. To that end, the Associated Press wrote in 2012 that the players were “hitting each other as though they were having a pillow fight.”
The Pro Bowl is not a true representation of football, at least not the kind of football fans watch on a weekly basis. The rules of the game ensure that.
Among other rule modifications, the regulations for the Pro Bowl prevent the offense from using players in motion prior to the snap and mandate that a tight end has to be part of every offensive formation. Intentional grounding by quarterbacks, which leads to less sacks, is legal. Defenses must use the 4-3 at all times and press coverage is prohibited anywhere but inside the five-yard line. Blitzing is not allowed. Kickoffs have been eliminated and rushing the punters and kickers is not allowed.
The NBA allows fans to select the five starters on each team with the league’s coaches voting on which players fill out the other 10 spots on each team. A coach is not allowed to vote for his own players.
The biggest issue with the NBA All-Star Game is that defensive effort does not exist. It’s an offensive free-for-all. It’s no fun to watch a guy dunk a basketball uncontested. What makes basketball fun to watch is the offense actually having to work to score.
The NHL is heading into uncharted waters with a completely new format in 2016. It isn’t the first time the league changed its All-Star Game format as it scrapped the East vs. West format in 1998 – to promote rivalries that were displayed in the Olympics that winter – through the 2002 season before it went back to East vs. West in 2003.
The latest change might actually up the entertainment value.
Instead of a traditional game consisting of three 20-minute periods, the new format will be a tournament with each of the three periods serving as a game in a 3-on-3 tournament.
All-Stars from the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions will play each other and the All-Stars from the Pacific and Central Divisions will square off in the first two periods, respectively. The winners will play each other in the final 20-minute period.
Each division will have an 11-man roster. The fans will select only one player for each division. That player will serve as the captain of his team. The NHL Hockey Operations Department will select the other 10 players for each team.
At least the NHL recognizes the fans need a reason to be interested and is trying to give them something they can enjoy.
The biggest issue I have with the selection process for the games is the leagues letting the fans have a say.
A major percentage of fans aren’t informed enough to choose which players are the best in the league. The vast majority of them only know the players of the team they root for intimately. Looking at statistics can help, but they don’t tell the entire story. Some receivers rack up yardage or touchdowns while others don’t. However, a receiver with lesser numbers might play in a run-first offense, therefore he gets far less opportunities than others. In baseball, a great hitter on a bad team gets less opportunity to drive in runs while a player on a team that scores a lot has a higher number of opportunities leading to more RBI.
The casual fan cannot make the distinction between those players, he only votes for the player who has the best numbers.
Aside from that, fan voting is more a representation of the popularity of a player, not how good he is. Fans will vote for the names they recognize. They aren’t apt to go and research all of the names on a ballot.
Which leads to the biggest problem. Fans will vote for the players only on the team they root for. This became an issue in 2015 when the supporters of the Kansas City Royals had all eight of the Royals’ position players leading his position group before MLB brass disallowed 65 million ballots. Cincinnati Reds’ fans stuffed the ballot box in 1957, selecting seven Cincinnati players to start. Commissioner Ford Frick appointed Hank Aaron and Willie Mays to start in the game in place of two of the Reds, joining Stan Musial as the only non-Cincinnati starters.
Fans, by nature, are biased to the teams they cheer for. They blindly support the team in their city and refuse to recognize that the player on a rival team is actually better than one of their own. That is certainly not a way to select the best players in a given league.
In short, all-star games are ridiculous events. The selection processes are flawed and the games have zero appeal for fans. They’re a waste of time not only for those of us watching on television, but for the players themselves.