Give 'em the hook

HERE'S AN EXPERIMENT WORTH trying at home: Take a balloon with a pin-size hole in it, blow air into it and try to keep it filled. The results will be almost identical to the state of the All-Star Games.

With the possible exception of the NBA's midseason showcase, the All-Star concept is dead. The money killed it. Technology killed it. Time killed it. The players and owners killed it. Its death, though, might not be a bad thing. Maybe something better will replace it in time.

As hard as it is to believe, there was once a great need for All-Star Games. This was when sports fans were hamstrung by the limited number of games the three national networks aired, making it an event to see the greats gathered in one place. For the players, the games used to have purpose too. During baseball's reserve-clause era, when owners paid everyone pennies, being recognized as an All-Star was an important way for pros to earn bigger money, both from salary and endorsements.

But today, the NFL Sunday Ticket and the MLB Extra Innings packages have eliminated the novelty of, say, a baseball fan in Seattle seeing Joey Votto hit. If anything, players are overexposed these days. At the same time, they are compensated much more closely to their fair value thanks to free agency. The All-Star Game does little to boost their bottom lines or reps, so there's no incentive for them to play their best.

It shows. The Pro Bowl is usually the most painful of the four events. The players, ground into powder by a debilitating season, are unmotivated to even show up to the game, which comes a month after the end of the regular season. And the action is generally dull because football cannot be played casually. This year, NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers called out players for their lack of effort as the Pro Bowl moved from harmlessly embarrassing to critically catatonic.

Baseball owners, in their constant thirst for profits, killed their All-Star Game 15 years ago with interleague play. Wondering what Derek Jeter would do against NL pitching is a mystery now resolved three weeks out of every season. And because of scheduling, free agency and the dissolution of league-specific umpiring, the players no longer identify as strongly with being in the AL or NL, which was once a serious component to the energy of the All-Star Game. Baseball has tried to pump air into the punctured balloon by awarding home-field advantage to the most important games of the year -- the World Series -- based on the result of an exhibition. But most stars appear unmoved by the stakes; you often get the sense they'd rather rest than travel during the midseason break.

The NHL, at least, has brought true innovation to its All-Star Game with this year's Team Chara vs. Team Alfredsson device, a fantasy draft format that was introduced in 2011. But the sport suffers from the same All-Star Game trouble the NFL does: It's too rugged and violent to play for fun. The goaltenders are patsies because the
defensemen cannot light up the forwards trying to light up the scoreboard. It's not real hockey.

Only the NBA's All-Star Game is consistently credible. Yes, defense tends to go by the wayside, but unlike in football or hockey, it is at least nominally represented in exciting bursts through steals and blocked shots. And fans seem to find the game compelling: Ratings for the 2011 All-Star Game were up 37 percent from 2010 -- though it will be interesting to see whether the lockout affects the numbers of this year's contest on Feb. 26. In contrast, MLB's game in 2011 was the lowest-rated ever; you'd need a microscope to see the NHL's overnight rating for its All-Star event last month; and the Pro Bowl's rating this year fell 8.1 percent compared with 2011.

Look, times change. Once baseball played two All-Star Games, and now there is one. So why not zero? Instead of throwing what has become the equivalent of a bad dress rehearsal, each sport can have an All-Star awards ceremony to coincide with its MVP announcement at the end of the season, with actual pomp and circumstance. (NASCAR does something similar now.) Such an event would have the added benefit of actually recognizing a full year of excellence; NBA, NHL and MLB All-Stars are currently celebrated just for having a good first half
of the season. And who knows: Maybe the absence of All-Star Games will create a certain nostalgia for them, and they could be reinstated.

If not, well, no one would miss them anyway.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.