The dog days of the sports fan’s summer

I came to a realization years ago: the Major League Baseball all-star game is the only one that matters in North American major pro sports.

I gave up on hockey’s all-star game when I was a teenager, once I realized that the days of actually seeing physical contact in that game were over. (Yes, there was a time that there was hitting in the all-star game. Lanny McDonald even told me so).

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The last time I was actually enthralled by an NHL all-star game was 1999, and that was only because Wayne Gretzky put on a show in what proved to be his last appearance in the game.

The NFL Pro Bowl is a joke; it’s so bad the league has talked about scrapping the concept. The NBA all-star game feels like a bad game of pick-up basketball at the local YMCA.

But baseball’s all-star game is pretty good. It starts with the home run derby – the skills competition by which all other skills competitions are judged. (The NBA slam dunk contest used to be fun, until they started dunking over cars and church choirs).

Toronto Blue Jays fans are going to talk about Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s performance at this year’s home run derby for years to come, even though he didn’t win.

But what makes the baseball all-star game work is that it’s the one major sport where the sport translates well to an all-star game. You don’t battle in the corners or on the offensive line in baseball.

So you get a game that can be played like a game in the regular season or the playoffs, but with the best players in the game for that one night in July.

Take that, NFL.

And the players actually give a damn. Yes, it should be an exhibition and a fun night, but you can tell the players genuinely care about the end result, and not just because of the money that goes to the winning team.

But there is a downside to this relevant all-star game: there’s a four-day break. And it’s the doldrums for any serious sports fan.

There are three dreadful days on a sports fan’s calendar: the day after the Major League Baseball all-star game, the day after the day after the Major League Baseball all-star game, and Christmas Eve.

You might argue that the day after the all-star game gives us the ESPY Awrads. It’s an awards ceremony. It’s incredible that Tracy Morgan was able to host the awards this year, given what he’s been through, but anyone who has time to watch the ESPY Awards has too much time on their hands.  

Christmas Eve? There’s nothing most years, just one or two mean-nothing college football games involving teams that aspire to be nationally-ranked. You might get an NFL game if you’re lucky.

On Christmas Day you can pretend to be a basketball fan (if you aren’t one). New Year’s Day gives us good college football and an outdoor hockey game. If you’re lucky, Easter Sunday will fall on the final day of the Masters.

Which brings me to the day after the day after the all-star game. We’re blessed up here in Canada to have the CFL. And we did get a game: the Edmonton Eskimos visited the B.C. Lions.

On the surface, it seems great. But closer inspection shows the CFL’s error.

We had to wait almost 48 hours after Aroldis Chapman (the closer on my championship-winning baseball pool team) recorded the final strikeout in the all-star game to have a sporting event worth watching again.

The CFL – a league that is seeing its rating slip and attendance dwindle – decided to wait until 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to have its game on a sports death day.

The CFL should make the Thursday after baseball’s all-star game its equivalent to American Thanksgiving for the NFL, or Christmas Day for the NBA. Schedule three quality games, culminating with a Grey Cup rematch in prime time.

You have the attention of every sports-starved fan in the country. Take advantage of it. Thrust yourself back into the spotlight. Deliver three great games that remind fans of why this can be the most exciting brand of football on the planet.

The CFL isn’t at the point of desperation that it found itself in the 1980s and the 1990s, when its existence was in doubt on an annual basis. We still don’t have American teams in the league.

But our league didn’t reach the levels seen in the 1980s and 1990s overnight. It was a slow erosion of the fan base, until the league reached the point that it had to expand rapidly into the U.S., or fold up its tent.

The league has done a good job in attracting the fans who are now over the age of 35, but they’re slumping with millennials. And thanks to bad football in its largest markets, millennials in Toronto, Montreal and to a lesser extent Vancouver are ignoring the league.

This league needs to do everything it can to attract the under-30 or the under-35 sports fan.

And one last thing: don’t bring back the CFL all-star game. Baseball’s the only sport that can do it right.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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