The Decline and Fall of the All-Star Game

LeBron still looks cool at these things, at least.
Photo: Kyle Terada – Pool/Getty Images

It’s mid-February, which means a few things. The gloomy late winter weather probably has you feeling a little melancholy; National Bird Feeding Month is in full swing; and three of America’s most popular professional sports — football, basketball and hockey –— have either recently held their all-star games or are about to. (The NBA’s is this Sunday.) Excited yet?

If you care about all-star games about as much as National Bird Feeding Month, you’re not the only one. These events seem, intuitively, like good television — the best of the best athletes showcasing superior athleticism against their peers. But the American public’s waning interest in them is indicative of their diminished cultural footprint. The Pro Bowl’s audience has been shrinking since 2011, going from 13.4 million viewers to a measly 6.28 million last year. In 2023, only 4.6 million people tuned into the NBA All-Star Game, marking a 20 year low. NHL All-Star Game viewership numbers have ebbed and flowed throughout the 21st century, but the audience is overall a fraction of what it was in the early 2000s. The MLB All-Star Game, which takes place in July, has seen the sharpest decline in viewership: in 1993, 22.31 million people were watching; 30 years later, the audience withered to a mere 7.01 million.

One obvious reason for these declines is that the way we consume television has radically shifted. Dennis Deninger, a professor of sports media at Syracuse University who worked as a production executive at ESPN for 25 years, said in a phone interview that all-stars games were more relevant “in an era when we didn’t have expanded playoffs, regional sports networks, 24-hour sports networks, and each league having their own network. Now, you can watch so many games and see these stars all the time. Nobody is starved for sports.”

But that’s not the whole story. Super Bowl viewership has steadily increased over the years, and while the number of people watching network television has dipped, the average viewership of NFL regular season games has ticked up between 2000 and the present day. The 2022-3 season was the NFL’s best year, audience-wise, since 2015, and notably, had the largest female viewership ever recorded. So something else is going on here.

The ideal professional sports contest includes great offense, great defense, and, crucially, players who are trying really hard. A major problem with all-star games is that they’re usually devoid of the latter two elements of that list. (The harder you play defense, the more susceptible you and your opponents are to getting injured. Hence the hyper-inflated final scores, like last year’s 184-175.) “The alley-oops are great and the long threes are fun,” said Martin Rickman, the editorial director of Uproxx Sports and DimeMag who has covered the NBA All-Star Game for the past nine years. “But it’s a glorified pick-up game in that way. Abandoning defense on entire possessions gets a little frustrating if you’re a fan. How many times can you see Kevin Durant dunk or Steph Curry shoot a three before you hope for something else?”

The thing is, the all-star games of yore were always kind of glorified pick-up games. In 1970, Pete Rose drew criticism (and some praise) when he took the Midsummer Classic way too seriously, violently colliding with catcher Ray Fosse to clinch the win. (Fosse suffered residual pain from the incident for the rest of his life.) And in 1999, Pedro Martinez almost threw his arm off as struck out a murderers’ row of beefy steroid-era hitters, including Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, at Fenway Park. These episodes stick out precisely because they’re anomalies. But even if all-star games weren’t particularly competitive, they did carry with them a certain novelty: In the era of three channels or even cable in the pre-social media age, sports fans simply didn’t have many opportunities to see non-local top players in their element. It was a special treat to see Jim Brown score three touchdowns in a single night or Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan. But with services like NBA League Pass and NFL+, any and every game starring whichever star you’d like to watch is available for several hundred dollars.

With all these factors working against them, leagues should be working to make these events feel more distinctive than ever. But instead, they’re going the other way. If you’re one of the few million who caught the NFL and NBA’s all-star weekends in recent years, you may have noticed that the product, uh, kinda sucks.

It’s not just the all-star games themselves that are in need of a refresh. Other surrounding events, like the NBA’s Slam Dunk contest, have also fallen off. The 2022 version was particularly painful to watch: the Houston Rockets’ Jalen Green missed so many times that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar straight-up left in the middle of the event. For many years now, the NBA has struggled to get the league’s biggest stars to participate, to the point that last year, the winner was Mac McClung, who plays in the NBA’s minor league. Compare this to the late 1980s, when Michael Jordan recorded back-to-back wins. Fast forward to ‘97 to see an 18-year-old rising star named Kobe Bryant get first prize. Journey to the year 2000 to watch Vince Carter’s iconic reverse 360° dunk. Wander back to Obama’s second term to witness Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, great players who are stars but not superstars, make NBA history with their distinctive acrobatics. (2024 could be the year that the NBA rights the ship: Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, a three-time all-star, has agreed to compete.)

It’s hard to think of any recent all-star game that featured a truly indelible moment. The most memorable news story about MLB’s Midsummer Classic over the last few years wasn’t about the 2023 Home Run Derby, when Julio Rodríguez set a new record with 41 homers, or anything related to the actual game of baseball. It came in 2021, when the MLB decided to move that year’s all-star game out of Atlanta to protest the state’s restrictive voting laws. (Georgia will host the game after all in 2025.)

The NFL’s Pro Bowl, the laughingstock of this bunch to begin with, is in perhaps the most dire straits of them all. Last year, the NFL made the decision to turn it into a flag football game. This shift was no doubt due to the fact that football is a fundamentally dangerous sport. Every down poses extreme injury risk to its participants, and in a game that has no stakes or impact on the playoffs, the risk for players is simply not worth taking.

Still, tackling, even if it’s a less violent kind, is a major part of football’s appeal, making flag football an inferior entertainment product. Just how inferior was evident during this year’s Pro Bowl, which aired on February 4. The competition, if you can even call it that, barely resembled a football game at all. It felt more like watching your favorite players doing warm-ups.

Over the last decade, the NBA, NFL, and NHL have played around with the format of their all-star games, which suggests that they know they are serving viewers a broken product. The NBA and the NHL have both toyed with the way all-star teams are selected, having two of the league’s biggest stars select their teammates instead of dividing up the players by location. The player draft made pretty good television. In 2022,some fun drama ensued when team captains LeBron James and Kevin Durant made selections on TNT: the Brooklyn Nets’s so-called “superteam” had begun to fall apart, and James Harden had just demanded a trade to Philadelphia. Durant refused to draft him, and he ended up on James’s team, getting chosen last despite being insanely good at basketball (even by all-star standards!). But the NBA is switching back to the East vs. West team format,, so perhaps these little human dramas maybe didn’t make good enough TV.

The future of these events ultimately depends on each league’s ability to figure out a format that works for the players and the viewers. Karen Sebesta, who worked as an associate producer for Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL All-Star Game from 1996-2006, has faith in the future of the tradition. “I feel like if you survey the general population, people still enjoy it. It still has value,” she said. “I don’t think it’s dead yet.”

All-star games still serve as a tool to designate who a sport’s biggest stars are, at least according to certain factions. (NBA all-stars are selected by a combination of fans, members of the sports media, and the players themselves. In the NFL, fans, coaches, and players get to pick.) Being named an all-star in any given sport remains a huge deal. “It’s important for a league to identify who their all-stars are. But I don’t know whether the game itself, as an entertainment vehicle, is that relevant anymore,” Deninger said.

If these games are irrelevant, nobody told the cities that host them, who can still reap major profits. The MLB pulling its all-star game out of Atlanta was important not because it emotionally harmed Fox News viewers, but because it materially harmed the state of Georgia. Sebesta noted that all-star weekends also hold great significance to the cities hosting them. They are “revenue-generating opportunities,” she said, since “people come and stay in hotels, get food, and participate in fan activities.” In 2023, the NBA’s all-star showcase, per commissioner Adam Silver, generated a record $280 million for Salt Lake City.

Deninger, nevertheless, predicts that in 20 years, all-star games will be a thing of the past. And he’s got a novel theory of what they’ll turn into. “Envision this: the league has announced who its all-stars are. And then somehow, those players become part of a videogame you can market worldwide,” he said. “You’d be the player or the coach, and make all the [all-stars] play against each other.”

Ok, maybe that won’t happen. But it seems about as likely as major sports leagues sticking with the status quo. Because clearly, something’s gotta give.

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