Okay that pun was a little ridiculous. Sorry. But with the NHL, NFL and NBA having just completed their respective All-Star games season, we’re now officially through a time of the year that the niche we call “sports fans” are coming to loathe more and more. The problem is that as the leagues move to make these events showcases of their games to the fans, they’re moving closer and closer to some hybrid of the Academy Awards and the Battle of the Network Stars and further and further away from the fierce and competitive action which fills their seats night in and night out through the regular season. And it’s a real shame.
Watching NHL All-Star coverage on the NHL Network this year was like watching the Oscars pre-show on the “E” network as long-time hockey coach and broadcaster Gary Green asked the biggest stars in the game “who” they were wearing as they paraded a red carpet on the way into the arena. These are guys who likely had to make special arrangements to be sure they had a full-set of TEETH for the proceedings, being brought down to this level, presumably to make the NHL more palatable to a mass audience. Meanwhile, in the NBA, the league tinkers with and debates its skills competition ad nauseum each, only to really succeed in some small way when one of their players are able to heroically create a YouTube-worthy moment as superman, Dwight Howard did this past weekend (and newcomer cleverly Rudy Gay attempted to do). True, formats like YouTube are pointing the way to the future of fan engagement, but these All-Star gimmicks are blips on the radar. They may lead to a weekend of elevated video streams, but they’re not selling many seasons tickets.
The reality (and irony) is that, while the All-Star game in any sport is supposed to be ‘for the fans’, it’s the true sports fans seem to be the least interested in the proceedings. “Believe it or not, this arena is far from full capacity. There are empty sections all around the upper bowl” wrote blogger and podcaster J.E. Skeets from media row in New Orleans during this past Sunday’s NBA All Star game.
So why the lack of interest? Let’s consider the truly passionate fan of major professional sports…
True sports fans appreciate speed, determination, hustle, grit, agility, skill and perhaps most of all, heart. Without all of those factors present, the others are greatly diminished. This is why Don Cherry has crusaded in criticism of the lack of grit of European hockey players, why Toronto basketball fans have been notorious for their criticisms of the highly skilled but dubiously motivated Vince Carter, and why the NFL pundits will always take a team playing “smash mouth football” over a more athletic squad that’s afraid to get a little dirty. This is why great moments in sports are often remembered for individuals playing through injury, overcoming momentous odds and fighting tooth and nail for victory – All Star games have none of these elements that inspire the minds of sports fans and raise them to their feet.
But professional sports leagues continue to ignore this obvious fact as the “All-Star Weekend” marches on as a tireless quest to put their game’s greatest stars on display in a forum which displays very little of what makes them great. The format simply does not inspire the competitiveness that their core fans embrace – it’s gotten to the point where many players, the ‘honour’ of being an All-Star aside, will simply look for an injury to keep them out of the proceedings so as not to risk a freak accident that would keep them out of a game that really matters.
So as All-Star games look for more and more gimmicks to engage the masses at these annual corporate love-ins, it’s easy to wonder if major professional sports leagues will be the last to get the message that we’re moving into a time of highly fragmented audiences where it’s their die-hard fans they should be looking to please. I certainly believe in the idea of putting the brightest stars in a sport on display for its fans, but aren’t they hurting their sports more than helping them by doing so in a format that doesn’t allow those stars to shine their brightest for those who most want to see them?