Point/Counterpoint: Can the Pro Bowl Be Saved?

On Tuesday, the Buccaneers learned that their own Vincent Jackson had been added to the Pro Bowl roster, where he joins teammate Gerald McCoy and, if things go right this coming weekend, perhaps Doug Martin as well.  Presumably, Johnny BucFan just got a few more reasons to watch the NFL’s all-star game on January 26.  But will he?

You see, we should probably call it the NFL’s beleaguered all-star game.  Right now, the Pro Bowl is about as popular as the kid who asks the teacher for extra homework at the end of class.  Last year’s game included a combined 100 points, but it wasn’t the type of fireworks display that impressed its viewership.  After all, if you’ve ever seen a football team practice you’ve seen a lot of “touchdowns,” too, but nobody is rushing to televise that.

You won’t find too many pure defenders of the Pro Bowl these days.  Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said this past October that the game might have to go away if it isn’t fixed.  However, there are surely those who believe it can be fixed, and that the NFL should have a fun, popular all-star event just like MLB and the NBA, and to a lesser extent the NHL.  The real question is, given the nature of the game of football, is it actually possible to play a useful all-star game that both players and fans will enjoy?

So that’s our question this week, Andrew: Can the NFL’s Pro Bowl be saved?  I’ll let you have first crack at it.

Andrew Norton: Well, my quick answer is yes, because it absolutely has to be.

Look at all of the career stats that everyone judges to use when talking about NFL players. We mention Super Bowl rings, statistical highlights, All-Pro votes and Pro Bowl appearances. It is a notch in a players belt that they can show they are not only among the best in the league, but also among the most liked and respected by their fans, peers and media.

Not to mention the fact this the NFL is one of the “Big 4” sports and hands-down the most watched of them all. Fans want to consume it. They want the Pro Bowl to do well. They want as much football as they can get. And simply scrapping it is frankly not even an option as far as I am concerned. And, since it is now obvious how much I love me a good Fun Fact: 21 of the 46 most-watched television events in history are Super Bowls.

That being said, things need to change. The Pro Bowl as we know it is flawed and failing. And if kept in the current format, there is no way that it lasts. Which would be a pity.

My argument is the same as many others. The Pro Bowl is just a game. It’s hardly an event. It’s not even a weekend. Personally, I don’t watch much baseball or basketball, but you can be certain that when their All-Star weekends roll around, that is the channel that I am tuned into.

What the NFL needs is the excitement that those programs have proven to offer. The problem with the NFL Pro Bowl is effort, we all know this. But we see the same thing in the NBA and NHL. Little defense, high-scoring affairs. People tune in to it, but it’s not the most talked about part of the experience.

It is the Home Run Derbies. It’s the Slam Dunk Competition. Those are the draws. They get the attention, they are fun to watch. They are completely engaging and make it exciting to be a fan and exciting to be a part of that All-Star experience.

That is missing in the NFL. It’s just the game. A game with little effort, nothing competitive. Move the game back to after the Super Bowl so all players can participate. And give me a Quarterback Competition. Give me a Skills Contest. Give me a 7-on-7 Rookie Flag Football Game, an Alumni Game, a Strongman Competition. Just give me something.

With these kind of events, the effort of the Pro Bowl game itself is pretty much nullified. People will tune in for the fun stuff, and the pressure is taken off the performance of the big game. Football is America’s real pastime, and it’s absurd that getting all of the best NFL players together is essentially blown off. Make it a celebration and people will care.

Scott Smith: That’s a neat little thing you did there, proving that people like watching NFL football by citing Super Bowl viewership numbers.  Yes, people do want to watch football – as you say, it’s easily the most popular sport in the U.S., especially on TV – but there’s the rub: The Pro Bowl isn’t football.  How many of the most-watched, oh, 50,000 TV broadcasts of all time are Pro Bowls?  The game’s ratings have been in steep decline for years, and the brakes are out.

(Oh, and by the way, as bad as the Pro Bowl ratings are, they were better last year than the MLB All-Star Game, so I’m not sure that coming up with a football version of baseball’s 46-hour home run derby marathon is going to solve the problem.)

You are correct in one thing, which is probably a new personal record for you here in Point/Counterpoint: The problem is effort.  Not to mention the rules.  Neither are what fans are used to seeing, or want to see in a football game, for the very obvious and valid reason that nobody wants to suffer a significant injury in a game that doesn’t count.  I’m sure this trend mirrors the rise in salaries in professional sports; why would you risk your actual livelihood for “conference pride” and a relative pittance of a bonus?

And that’s why I disagree with your base assertion that the Pro Bowl should go on because it has to go on.  Look, I’m a sports traditionalist, too, and I generally want everything in my leagues to go on the way they always have since my childhood.  It’s comforting.  But the Pro Bowl is far from sacred.  It’s been moved around geographically (not just recently, but several decades ago, too).  It’s been moved from after the Super Bowl to before.  It’s had surrounding activities like the ones you mention before, and then taken them away.  It’s had rule changes on the field.  And, as I mentioned above, it now has a commissioner openly discussing the possibility that it has an end at some point.

See, the game is never going to get better.  You can’t substantively change the rules to get the players back to playing as hard as possible.  Yes, you could, as some have suggested, go the other direction and simply make it a flag football game, but do we really want to see that.  To be honest with you, I’d be kind of embarrassed watching Ray Lewis trying to pull Aaron Rodgers’ flag, and I can’t imagine such a scenario would make them take it anymore seriously.

So, yes, bring back the QB drills and the skills competitions and whatever other activities you want to do.  You still name the Pro Bowl, so those honors still exist for examining a player’s career (and for contract incentives), and you do everything you can to get players to come to it.  That means keeping it in Hawaii, potentially bumping up the bonuses and providing further payments for participating in the various competitions.  You move it back to the weekend after the Super Bowl and you make it a full weekend event, maybe even move that new NFL Honors award show there so we found out at the same time who the MVPs and Rookies of the Year and so on are going to be.

You do all that.  You just don’t play the game.  Who’s really going to miss it?

Andrew Norton: So. Let me get this straight.

You want to name Pro Bowlers, have a Pro Bowl weekend, have special entertaining All Star events… but, ultimately, not have the Pro Bowl. That seems outlandish even for you, sir.

I know for certain that I am not as much of a traditionalist as you – I feel that we’ve had that argument before – but I do kind of feel that the Pro Bowl is an integral part of the “Pro Bowl Weekend” experience. No?

My point of building up all of the additional events was to take pressure off of the Pro Bowl game. With events and entertainment surrounding it in a true Pro Bowl Weekend fashion, then all of the flaws of the Pro Bowl (effort, rules, scoring, etc.) are minimized.

Again, look at NBA All-Star Weekend. The All-Star game has little defense, little incentive, and is such a high-scoring affair it barely mimics an actual NBA game. But people still watch. And without the dunk contest and the three-point competition and the skills contest and all the other events, I have to question whether or not people would actually tune in. If they didn’t have the entire weekend lineup, then the All-Star game would be boring, with no crowd and no attention. Just like the current Pro Bowl.

So, with the proposed NFL Pro Bowl Weekend, I think it is safe to draw parallels that the Pro Bowl game would be less criticized and more enjoyable if it was surrounded by fun events. Basically, in comparing the NBA and the NFL All-Star games, the NBA comes out looking like a Thanksgiving feast where the Pro Bowl is nothing more than boring old turkey. And your suggestion is just all the trimmings without the meat. But with a QB competition, rookie and alumni involvement, skills contests and just more fun surrounding the actual Pro Bowl game, then it starts to look like something complete and palatable.

Scott Smith: Oh, you read me right.  It was probably that part where I said, “just don’t play the game,” that tipped you off.  I admit that was subtle, but you managed to read between the lines.

You have mentioned the other “big four” all-star games a few times, so let me weigh in on that.  MLB’s game may have that frighteningly stupid “winner gets World Series home field advantage” thing against it, but overall it is the one game that is played most like a real in-season game.  I agree that NBA and NHL have the same no-defense problem that exists in the NFL, but somehow those two games still look a lot closer to the real thing than the Pro Bowl to me.  Those guys in the NBA are still jumping just as high and still dunking.

And yet, as I mentioned before, the Pro Bowl actually drew a better audience than the MLB all-star game last year.  That tells me that, yes, fans want more NFL on TV.  But the Pro Bowl gets more and more criticism every year, and how is that good for the league?  If the Pro Bowl weekend is going to draw bad (for the NFL) ratings anyway, than will it really be much worse for a series of skills competitions and an award show?  That’s my point, which you think is radical but I think is pretty obvious.  We don’t need the whole turkey – ditch the white meat and we’ll all just enjoy the juicier dark meat.  Nobody’s going to miss the actual game, and then fans and media won’t have it to kick around for the next 11 months.

Getting players to the game has become an increasing problem, and it’s one I don’t think can be solved.  A player can choose not to play during injury, and since just about every guy is probably hurting in some way or another after the season, how can the NFL argue in any specific case.  I don’t think the draw would be any worse if you told the player: “You’re going to be recognized as a Pro Bowler.  You get a free trip to Hawaii.  You still get paid (and maybe a little more).  You can even make extra money, and impress the fans in a relatively risk-free way, if you participate in these skills competitions.  On Sunday night, you get to come to the NFL Honors show, which is kind of like the league’s own Oscars, and hobnob with all the league greats.  Oh, and you don’t even have to practice or play a game!“  Who’s saying no to that?

The players are there, the bad publicity of the actual game is gone, the various competitions probably draw similar TV ratings anyway.  If it pains you so much to have a “Pro Bowl Weekend” without a “Pro Bowl,” then change the name to “NFL Honors Weekend,” or something.  What’s the downside?  It’s time to let go of the Pro Bowl, Andrew.  It’s time to let go.

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