Seemingly from the outset of the NBA season, the league offices churn out promotions for its All-Star Weekend; an extravaganza of parties, fan festivals, community initiatives, contests... and oh yeah, the Sunday night game itself. Not deterred by the stupidity of former NFL cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones during the Las Vegas festivities, the Association continues to find ways to make the event even bigger as the upcoming gala at 100,000-seat Cowboys Stadium will certainly prove.
Yet, despite the debates around the game each year - which players got snubbed, who should take a seat, what color from the visible spectrum will Craig Sager bless us with - there is no league that understands and executes what All-Star Weekend truly is than the NBA. It may not be the television juggernaut it once was, but with few tweaks in the formula, the three-day celebration of the league's best still manages to capture our attention like no other event in the sports schedule.
In prior decades, All-Star contests in sports were displays of athletic excellence for the early part (and at times, very end of) the season. The statistics never counted, but you were able to enjoy watching athletes that may have never played together during their careers: Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown in 1960, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in 1965, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson in 1968, Marcel Dionne and Bobby Orr in 1970. These were the original fantasy teams; consisting of players that you dreamt of seeing in your favorite team's colors because they had great on-base percentages or had the hardest slap shots.
The economic growth in sports that led to free agency and more elaborate trades made these exhibitions less alluring, though league expansions have added another hurdle. Yet, these events are special in this era because as generations before us, we still wonder what it would be like to see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on a title contender together.
Patrick Truby, a Massachusetts-based writer for There's No "I" in Blog, certainly appreciates the spectacle baseball provides, especially with the player's enjoyment during the Home Run Derby. Yet, he says, "The rhythm of baseball, with its stopping and starting between pitches, outs, and innings, especially without a real rivalry for fans to have a rooting interest in the game, does not make for great television. I think MLB also lacks the personalities that made great moments like John Kruk's backward helmet possible."
And there's a strong point to that; personalities make the event even more enjoyable for fans to watch. It's one thing to perform as they do night after night, but it's another to actually show the public some flair that is mostly suppressed in the midst of competition. Shaquille O'Neal, one of the most intimidating presences the league had ever known, is also one of its greatest showmen; his ball-handling and the famous entrance dance with the Jabbawockeez are two examples.
"The nature of it more exciting in the all star format," said Jason Rawlins, an avid hoops fan since his younger days in the Bronx, New York. "We get the opportunity to see [Harlem] Globetrotteresque dishes, arcade classic NBA Jam-type slams, and the occasional brilliant block. All of the essentials that make the game are displayed at their highest level [minus defense] which allows for viewers to fully grasp how physically gifted these athletes are."
And while it must be incredible to witness these events in person, those gifts make fans jump out of the couches at home are why the NBA promotes All-Star Weekend so early and heavily in the season.
"The NBA focuses on putting on an entertaining show, and that makes for a much more watchable product," says Andrew Bucholtz, a Kingston, Ontario-based writer. "There's a reason SI can put together a top-10 list like this of NBA all-star weekend moments and have the top-10 actually be memorable; I think I'd be hard-pressed to even come up with 10 things I remember from any other league's all-star weekend."
Speaking of memorable, Tamara Curl-Green spoke to what truly sticks out for fans in these contests: BUCKETS! "In all sports, fans are much more inclined to 'ooh' and 'awe' over good offense," says Curl-Green, a student at Duke University. "The NBA is the only league where players aren't invited for being exceptional defenders."
She certainly wasn't lying about that. Neither the Eastern or Western Conference has scored less than 100 points in the game since the left side dropped just 84 points in 1973. That wasn't a peach-basket tally, but in an exhibition with nothing meaningful at stake, offense sells to one and all. "It's easier to draw celebrities as well as fans to the weekend and get them excited because we are all sure that we're going to see a great exhibition game," says Curl-Green.
There are people who look at the ratings to see what captures our attention the most and there's no question that the NBA trails their outdoor counterparts. While the NFL experienced significant dips in shuffling the game between broadcast and cable television, it garnered a 3.6 rating with six million viewers in 2006, the lowest rated game on record. Despite not having drawn double-digit ratings since the infamous tie after failing to do so once in 51 years prior, MLB has the best viewed of all exhibition games, capturing at least twelve million viewers since 2002.
The NBA, which made the switch from free television to cable when moving the main show to TNT in 2003, experienced an uptick last year, a 4.5 rating and 7.6 million viewers were nearly 20% rises from 2008. Yet, it hasn't avoided the overall slide of most television events. To quote Paulsen from Sports Media Watch:
The 1999 NBA lockout seems to have had a major effect on All-Star Game ratings. From 1990-98, the All-Star Game averaged a 10.9 rating and 16.3 million viewers. Since 2000, the game has averaged a 5.4 with 8.6 million. Keep in mind that the lower ratings can also be attributed to the game moving to cable in 2003, and the overall trend of declining television ratings.
So why in the world would ratings matter? In American sports these days, those numbers are almost like sabermetrics, new found ways for the masses to debate the merits of what constitutes as worthwhile. And while this former television research analyst knows that ratings are only a part of the story, they do say that not as many people are appreciating sports' best exhibition as they should.
Unless we have a Pro Bowl fight like Kevin Gogan and Neil Smith gave us in 1998, Henrik Lundquist is encouraged to actually goal tend, and if Tim Lincecum is allowed to pitch deep into an All-Star Game, there's not much out of the ordinary for the viewer to enjoy. As seriously as those leagues want participants, it's laughably impossible. Making the All-Star Game count after the tied-game embarrassment in 2002 may help baseball, but it's still a sore subject for a sport with such reactive fans. Truby says, "Football is just dangerous, and any precautions taken to slow the game down or make it safer takes away what makes those NFL players great."
Bucholtz believes that the NBA intentionally designed their festivities as a showcase. He says, "It's not about finding out who actually the best at basketball skills, which is the mistake the NHL's made with its skills competition."
For all of the perception issues that cloud the NBA, there is no question what the middle of February means to the Association. It's a chance to remind the world that despite the pressures to win - for championships, for the next contract, for trade value - there's nothing wrong with a pass off the backboard or hanging on the rim by your elbow once in a while. So enjoy the show, people.
[Jason is a staff sportswriter for the New York Beacon, an African-American weekly in New York City. He is also the schizophrenic mind behind a Sports Scribe. Follow him on Twitter to glimpse the rapid-fire method to his madness. To read more by Jason, check out his profile.]
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