I am numbered among those sports fans who are disaffected by it all. So, here is the approach I would take.
There must be a way to acknowledge the subjectivity involved in the selection - but in a manner which places it all within a more objective frame. For inspiration I'd return to my days as an employer and the hours I'd spend setting criteria and interviewing applicants against that carefully-weighted criteria.
I'd have six criteria, each with its own mark, to give a total score out of 100.
1. The global stature of the sport (out of 30)
This is the most important one. Where does the sport fit within the global pantheon? This could be done in a pretty objective way by measuring global participation in the sport, or global viewership of the sport. What fills newspapers as I travel in different countries also comes to mind.
Examples might look something like this (I haven't done the objective analysis!): Football (30/30); basketball/golf/tennis (24-28); cricket/rugby/swimming (20-24); rowing/cycling (16-20); rugby league/netball (12-16/30). Track & Field is trickier. I suspect the 100m scores close to 30, while shot put would be closer to 16.
2. The local pulse of the sport (out of 20)
It is not good enough to just focus on the global stature. An award given in NZ should have the opportunity to reflect Kiwi passions. Here is the opportunity to do so - and again some objective criteria is closer at hand than we realise. Participation numbers in the sport? Viewership? Something like popularity on talkshows on the radio? A pretty objective assessment could be made.
Examples might look something like this: Rugby (20/20); netball (18-20); football/cricket (16-18); rugby league/cycling/rowing/swimming (14-16/20)... Again, track & field is trickier. The 1500m needs to be pushing up towards 20, while boxing, or shooting, hangs around 10.
3. The level of achievement in the sport (out of 20)
This is the place to acknowledge winners with a mark of 20. However I disagree with the view that you must be a winner to qualify for a Halberg award. The focus needs to be on achievement and excellence, rather than just winning. But I'd try to keep this one simple.
Examples might look something like this: Winner (20/20); second/silver (16); third/bronze (12/20) ...
Then when it comes to global tournaments an eye needs to be kept not so much on how many competitors there are at the tournament, but how many competitors attempted to qualify for the tournament. So, this would enter the picture for a basketball team finishing fourth at a World Championship, or a football team making it to a World Cup. I'd be inclined to give a score of 10-12 in that situation (because the significance of this achievement is picked up under criteria - like #1)
4. The status of the tournament for the sport (out of 10)
Here an attempt is made to separate the global, from the regional, or even the national. For example, a distinction needs to be made between a world championship for countries and an Australasian championship for clubs - and between an Olympic Games and a Commonwealth Games. Recognition is given here to the 'majors' in golf and tennis, for example. I struggle to see Breakers' basketball or Warriors' league ever winning the 'supreme' award for this reason.
Examples might look something like this: Olympics/World Cup (10/10); world championship/majors (8); Commonwealth Games (6); Australasian (4-6); national (2-4/10).
5. The frequency of the tournament (out of 10)
Here we recognise one of the anomalies that irritates me about the Halbergs - namely, that you are at a distinct advantage if your sport has an annual world championship of some kind, as opposed to a four yearly one. While I am a big fan, I think the likes of rowing and Valerie Adams have won more awards than is justified simply because of this reality.
Examples might look something like this: Four+ years (10); three years (6-8); two years (4-6); annual (2-4).
6. The subjective response (out of 10)
If the right judges are in place, then allocate some marks for them to affirm their own personal response to a sportsperson, for whatever reason. Subjectivity is unavoidable - so acknowledge it and constrain it within this criteria. This is a strategy I always used with applicants for jobs. It helps.
Where does this leave us?
It is not as complicated as it sounds. Brighter minds than mine will want to tweak it - but I reckon it provides a tighter objective frame, without becoming too mechanistic. Implications? It gives some justification to football beating rugby in 2010 (my score is 86:79). It suggests rugby league and netball will always struggle to win the 'supreme' award - but it is not impossible.
In terms of untying this Halberg knot, a few other reflections:
More focus needs to go on the criteria for selecting judges. In any given year a lot depends on who else is nominated. Being nominated should attract more recognition (like with the Oscars). Finding a way to give an award to an individual within a team sport remains difficult. I'd consider adding another award for this purpose. I'd also think about adding an award for a captain, as a means of affirming the place of leadership which would be a good thing to do in tall-poppy land. Minority sports get a rough deal with what I am suggesting here - but maybe there is another way of handling this dilemma?