Column: Bigger change needed for Pro Bowl

The NFL is reportedly moving the Pro Bowl to Orlando, but bigger change is needed to make it entertaining again.

The NFL does so many marketing things so well.

  • There is the limited regular-season game schedule that creates generally a six-day window for fans to obsess on what went right or wrong last week and transition into the new hope of another game.
  • The league markets players as much as teams in hyping a game that stands an increasing chance of now being on prime-time television on Thursday, Sunday or Monday – even Saturday in some instances – as much as a Sunday afternoon.
  • There is the NFL draft that has blossomed from an untelevised event decades ago into what is now a three-day, prime-time event that has captivated everyone from hardcores to housewives.

But, for all the NFL free-market capitalism and capitalization on those events, the league just can’t figure out a way to make the Pro Bowl a viable, entertaining event.

To put it bluntly, the Pro Bowl is a joke, an entirely ridiculous waste of time for anyone that dares to view it.

A report from Bloomberg News that the NFL is moving the Pro Bowl (once again) – this time to Orlando, Fla. – is further evidence that dramatic change might be needed to make it worthy of watching. But changing the location won’t change the atmosphere of “brother-in-lawing” the effort – a term in NFL vernacular that simply translates into “don’t make me look bad and I will reciprocate.”

For most of the Pro Bowl’s life, players appreciated the all-expenses-paid vacation with family and friend to Honolulu, Hawaii. These days, that’s hardly enough for the stars of the game, who often turn down the honor and cite injuries or pending surgeries as the reason, whether those are real or contrived.

Because of the timing of the event – the week before the Super Bowl – those playing in the league’s championship game aren’t available for the Pro Bowl. Many of the others who were voted in decline the invitation, creating a gaggle of talent that can be second-tier and effort that is tiered somewhere in the vicinity of basement-level.

Changing the location from Honolulu, Glendale, Ariz. or Miami is inconsequential.

According to Bloomberg, the Pro Bowl is still “consistently the highest-rated all-star game among the four major U.S. pro sports leagues.” But TV ratings are slipping, from 6.7 on NBC in 2014, to 5.6 on ESPN in 2015, to 5.0 on ESPN this year.

It isn’t the location that will make a difference. Nor will the network.

The only things that can save the Pro Bowl are changes in the effort level or the format.

When it comes to effort, it appears that ship is too far into the voyage to change course. No player wants to risk injury in a Pro Bowl that could jeopardize their next season of earning by delivering or receiving a hit like he would in the regular season.

That leaves the format. It’s getting to the point where the “coaches” of the game might as well let Vince Wilfork play quarterback and kickers run routes. That’s how ridiculous the event has become.

So why not change it completely? Give the best players their honor and continue with the payout, but make it a competitive affair even if a true football game isn’t the focus. Create throwing competitions for the quarterbacks based on velocity, accuracy, distance and then a side game of something else – pool, darts, golf, dodgeball, whatever. The game itself doesn’t matter as much as the entertainment value.

Have the linemen compete in battles of strength, or put them in a swimming pool for a game of chicken, perhaps with kickers on their shoulders. Engage the receivers and defensive backs in a track and field competition of sprints and jumps. Have running backs navigate a paintball course with linebackers (or cheerleaders) shooting at them.

And then bring them all together on relay teams for whatever the competition might hold. It’s the old “Battle of the Network Stars” reborn.

At this point, the competition is gone from the Pro Bowl game, so why not reinvent all-star weekend in the NFL to something that is actually entertaining? Rap battles, dance contests, American Ninja Warrior competitions, or whatever else might engage the players and entertain them as well as the audience.

Changing the location of the Pro Bowl isn’t the answer. Changing the event, and the thinking, is.

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