All-star games occupy a weird place in today’s sports universe. Once upon a time, they served the semi-important function of showcasing great players for fans who seldom — if ever — got to see them play. These exhibitions used to hold some level of romantic appeal for fans. But now, we can watch every player play every game if we want, and with so much money at stake every time a player risks injury by stepping onto the field or court, these showcases seem absurd. By 2019, the all-star game has become a kind of awkward relic that still provides entertainment but whose raison d’être recedes further into history with every passing year.
One way we’ve kept the all-star concept alive is through the addition of countless gimmicks, the most high-profile of which is currently the NBA’s schoolyard-style draft. (This year’s was held last Thursday.) There are also various skill competitions around the festivities, too, which often transcend the game. But beyond novel framing devices, the games themselves have also developed into bizarre offshoots of the competitive versions of their respective sports. Depending on how difficult it is to play a given sport at reduced speed and effort with minimal contact, its all-star game may bear little resemblance to the “real” game as experienced in its day-to-day existence.
So which sport changes the most when converted to an all-star format? One simple way to measure this is to look at how the scores of the all-star games change, as compared with the ordinary averages from the leagues during their regular seasons. And since 2000 — excluding NHL All-Star Games since 2016, when the league adopted a 3-on-3 format that makes regular-season comparisons impossible — no sport saw more of a difference in scoring between all-star and regular-season games than hockey.
|Per-Game Scoring Avg.|
|League||Regular Season||All-Star Game||Pct. Change|
|National Hockey League*||5.50||18.45||+235.6%|
|National Football League||43.68||65.37||+49.6|
|National Basketball Association||197.80||285.74||+44.5|
|Major League Baseball||9.12||8.16||-10.5|
An ordinary hockey game averages about 2.75 goals per team, give or take yearly scoring variations. But the NHL All-Star Game this century has seen such un-hockey-like scores as 11-10, 12-11, 14-12 and 17-12 (!). All told, before it finally abandoned any pretense of attempting a regulation hockey game, the All-Star Game saw a 236 percent increase in scoring compared with the regular-season NHL average, easily the largest change of any “big four” North American sport.
The NBA All-Star Game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl both see a very similar increase in scoring compared with the regular season, with each sitting between a 45 and 50 percent boost. Neither game is known for its tough defense, and for the NFL, that is particularly logical — unless Sean Taylor was involved (RIP), hard hits are not encouraged in the Pro Bowl, and defenses are hamstrung by playing at less than full effort or aggressiveness. The NBA has less of an excuse, since contact is much less fundamental to gameplay, but the All-Star Game has always prioritized flashy offense over lockdown defense — or any defense for that matter. This even manifests in the way players are selected — when doing research for my All-Star Draft simulator, I found that a player’s points-per-game average was by far the statistic most correlated with historical All-Star voting. It makes sense that when a bunch of offensive-minded players get together on the court, defense goes out the window.
But that is definitely not true in the league many hail for having the best all-star game — Major League Baseball. MLB is the only one of the big four whose All-Star scoring rate actually decreases relative to regular-season games. With 4.08 runs per team, per All-Star Game since 2000, the stars put 11 percent fewer runs on the board during their big showcase.
That wasn’t always the case: From 2000 through 2007, the stars scored 4 percent more runs than in an ordinary game. But from 2008 through 2017, All-Star scoring fell with an incredible 30 percent decrease relative to the regular season — perhaps not coincidentally as bullpens accelerated their takeover of modern baseball and All-Star managers began deploying more and more of their pitchers in extra-short stints. If the NHL needs to nudge its All-Star offense/defense mix more toward the defensive side of the puck, baseball has had the opposite problem, with even the game’s greatest hitters struggling to produce runs against what is essentially a supercharged procession of Hall of Fame-caliber relievers.
Baseball’s offense did bust out of its All-Star slump last season with 14 total runs — the most combined in the midsummer classic since 2002’s ill-fated 7-7 tie in Milwaukee. But in the big picture, baseball also still maintains a level of relative normalcy in its All-Star Games not seen in the other major sports. The NHL embraced the crazy scoring and took on an entirely different format; the NFL and NBA continue to play a version of their games that is normal in only the most superficial sense. All the while, we’ll continue to wonder whether we need all-star games in the modern sports landscape, but we’ll watch them anyway — partly out of nostalgia, partly out of entertainment and partly because it still beats anything else we’d probably be doing on a Sunday night in mid-February.