The NBA All-Star Game this Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will almost certainly attract a record number of attendees, but that turnout can’t obscure the fact that the game is in dire need of revision.
Despite the tens of thousands who will turn out in Texas for the game, the TV ratings won’t set any records. The game’s ratings have been essentially flat for several years now and when forced to compete with the Winter Olympics, the numbers tend to suffer even more. This year’s game not only has other sports competition in its timeslot, there’s this little thing called Valentine’s Day in the way, too.
You’d think that if you put LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and 20 other NBA stars on a court at once, you would generate some buzz and reach a bigger audience beyond the NBA’s core constituency.
The game went into a ratings funk shortly after Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, and it was part of a league-wide slump. The league has emerged from the downturn; the 2008 Finals were the most watched NBA games since the Jordan era. But the All-Star Game is still mired in depths of the TV ratings.
Revamping the format of the game could jumpstart a revival of All-Star Weekend. Since its inception in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game has been a battle between East and West. The transcontinental approach made sense initially. The geographic divide in the NBA was pronounced in its first three decades. In the early 1970s, Chicago and Detroit played in the Western Conference because of the heavy eastern skew of the league’s member teams.
Back then, the geographic divide provided the NBA with a showcase of old, established teams (the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks, the Philadelphia 76ers, et. al) versus talented expansion teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Supersonics) plus stalwart franchises like the L.A. Lakers and the Golden State Warriors. The East-West heat continued into the 1980s when it was a context for the epic Magic Johnson-Larry Bird battles.
Since then (and we’re talking two decades), the concept of an east-west rivalry has lost most of its juice. In addition, the NBA All-Star Game has lost some of its luster as a showcase for the stars. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to see James or Bryant or any of the other stars in the NBA galaxy. Anyone with a basic cable, fiber-optic or satellite package has access to seven to 10 national NBA games per week, in addition to the games of a team in their region.
The All-Star Game has suffered from NBA overexposure. To make it relevant again, the NBA needs to address the core conflict of the game. For most fans, it’s international competition. Yes, the United States won the gold medal in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but the national team only took the third-place bronze in the previous two international events, the 2006 World Championship in Japan and the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Why wait for the sizzle every two years? The All-Star Game should take on a global flavor. Every other year, the U.S. NBA All-Stars should play a foreign national team in its home country (for instance, the Spanish National Team in Madrid) under international rules. In the other years, a group of foreigners in NBA should play the U.S. national team in an American city under NBA rules. It won’t settle the debate about who is best in the world with the authority of the World Championships and the Olympics. But it would provide a far more entertaining showcase for the skills of the leading ballers in the world.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.