By the time you read this article, the NFL Pro Bowl will have already taken place. But this is not a preview, nor do I think you can expect a review of it in next week’s edition, at least not from me. The reason? I just don’t care enough about it. And no offense, but if you care about watching it, you are one of the few.
Why do we watch sports? The earliest athletic events originated as a means of simulating warfare, which, when it existed in the hand-to-hand format of antiquity, was the purest way of determining physical superiority. Of course, fighting for one’s life usually ends with the other side dead and thus unable to compete in the future, not to mention all of the physical and emotional trauma affecting the victor that any reasonable person would like to avoid. Therefore, in order to simulate the excitement of combat that we all crave so much in a non-lethal environment, we invented sports! Not too many sports fans make this connection today but if you look at the similarities in the rising of dopamine in the body during both war and when watching one’s favorite athlete perform well, it’s clear this connection still exists.
Now given all that, I ask you what the single most important variable in an athletic competition is as it relates to our collective enjoyment of it. Some people might just enjoy looking at the supremely fit bodies of professional athletes or simply like marveling at feats of superhuman athletic prowess like Aroldis Chapman’s 105 mph fastball or Odell Beckham Jr.’s leaping one-handed, three-fingered catch. But if we are to accept that sports began as, and still are, a simulation of war, then that means that the single most important element to our enjoyment of a game is competition. Without both sides giving it their all to win, our minds are reminded painfully that we are watching nothing more than a cheap simulation, the same way a terrible accent or badly rendered CGI can take you out of a movie.
This of course brings us full-circle back to the Pro Bowl and for that matter, any All-Star game. Despite the best efforts of each major professional league to market their respective game as exciting and competitive, the result is always the same: a poorly executed scrimmage of a bunch of disinterested professional athletes enjoying a vacation and trying not to get hurt.
This is especially evident in a sport like football, where injuries are such a frequent part of the game and teams’ playbooks are ridiculously complex and unique. There is nothing preventing a bunch of neighborhood kids gathering for a game of pickup football but when NFL athletes line up next to players who they are more or less unfamiliar playing with, the drop in execution and quality of play is jarring. And forget any defensive end trying to make a particularly sharp cut to stop a juking RB or a slot receiver giving up his body to go over the middle; with few NFL contracts guaranteed, players would have to be pretty stupid to risk their health in a game that means absolutely nothing.
The NBA All-Star Game, which will be played in just a couple weeks’ time, might be even worse than the Pro Bowl because it doesn’t seem to understand what its fundamental flaw is. The Pro Bowl, at least in NFL circles, is recognized as somewhat of a joke but the NBA markets its game as arguably the biggest event of the year besides the Finals. Many players even have substantial financial incentives built into their contracts for making an All-Star appearance.
Yet the game itself is just one long layup line and dunk-fest for 46 minutes, then perhaps two minutes of competitive basketball at the end if the score is close and rival players share the floor. Barrages of three-pointers, snappy passing, and ferocious slam dunks are all exciting, but not in a vacuum. Performing these feats over a group of defenders that is actively trying to stop them is what makes them so exhilarating and there is absolutely no tension if they are simply allowed to happen. A team scoring 125 points in an actual game is thrilling basketball; a final score of 163-158 in the All-Star game is not.
At the very least, the NFL and NBA believe that their All-Star competitions are exhibition events. But the MLB is asinine enough to lend their “Midsummer Classic” real ramifications, awarding the winning league home field advantage in the World Series. This decision was made with the design to ensure that the players gave their all and ignored such contradictory provisions as every team being required to send at least one representative to the game (ensuring that the squad probably isn’t entirely made up of the actual best players) and the managerial tradition of getting as many players into the game as possible (leading to frequent substitutions). What’s more, baseball isn’t really a sport than can be played at the half-assed pace of a relaxed game of football or basketball, so the World Series decider isn’t even necessary!
I am not the only one to notice or voice these complaints about All-Star games, so one may wonder why they even still exist. The simple answer is that they continue to be justified through revenue and viewership. The NBA and MLB All-Star games are consistently the most viewed TV events of their respective sports outside of the Finals, quality be damned, just because they appeal to nationwide audiences wanting to catch a glimpse of their favorite players and the fact that they are the only product of their leagues playing at the time (in other words, there aren’t other games to watch).
The Pro Bowl, on the other hand, is experiencing steadily declining viewership and lags behind every Sunday and Monday night regular season game, let alone the NFL playoffs. And yet never having dipped below 10 million viewers, it still ranks ahead of most anything any other American sport puts on television. The unfortunate truth is that these yawn-fests still have a place in the business models of sports. And that means gritting our teeth as fans of actual competition and putting up with them. But we don’t have to like them.