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Sports Authority

O’Connell: NHL Succeeds at All-Star game

| Thursday, February 18, 2016

I’ve written before about the NHL’s recent renaissance. Ticket sales and TV ratings are generally improving, teams and players are providing an entertaining product, and an impending apparel deal with Adidas will bring in additional revenue for the league. Still, it is difficult to suggest other American sports leagues need look to the NHL for inspiration, as they are all performing rather admirably in their own right — in most areas.

This past weekend, the NBA hosted its annual All-Star Game. The game and its surrounding festivities were met with reviews ranging from mixed to outright negative in nature, and the final score proved to be a gaudy 196-173 “victory” for the Western Conference. The unasked question, though, sits below the surface of the weekend’s events: Just who is this weekend for? And, more importantly, who is supposed to care about it?

The logical answer would be that the all-star weekend is for the fans. But I have trouble accepting that; what we are ultimately afforded as consumers of the NBA All-Star Weekend is a lukewarm series of affairs in which stars go through the motions in order to honor their commitments to the league and to justify their selection to the event.

This isn’t the players’ faults. Nobody is expecting LeBron James to suddenly play defense during an all-star game that doesn’t encourage that sort of behavior. Never mind it being a waste of time, it is too much of a risk for a player who has far more important things to worry about than whether he wins this scoring exhibition. No, much like the increasingly infamous loitering and half-hearted defending that have become hallmarks of the NFL’s Pro Bowl, the problems in this format of the All-Star Game are all generated by the NBA’s own plans and policies.

Meanwhile, the NHL has shifted to a number of experimental all-star formats over the past few years and to impressive critical and financial receptions. First came the removal of the conference vs. conference system that seems to be the standard for any sport’s all-star game. Instead, the league moved to a fan vote which led to a player-run fantasy draft. This year, the NHL did away with the traditional single all-star tilt in favor of a series of fast-paced, three-on-three games in a tournament fashion, with each team being led by hockey players from a specific division. The weekend’s festivities included insights into the players’ personalities — from Brent Burns’ wookie impression to P.K. Subban’s impersonation of elder skatesman Jaromir Jagr, the NHL’s most engaging personas were on full display this year. It engaged fans with views of their favorite players they never got to see and excited them with weird and fun twists on the classic game. And the fans cared enough about it to actually attend the All-Star Weekend.

Put simply, the NHL knocked its All-Star Weekend out of the park with these innovations (and that’s not even mentioning the meteoric rise of enforcer and hero John Scott). It catered to a packed house of rabid NHL fans, and it engaged them with interesting and appealing new twists on what has become a stale and uninteresting all-star formula.

If the NBA and other leagues want to create an all-star format worth watching — and one that will engage the players as well as the fans — then they would do well to follow the NHL’s example.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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